Loose Pass: Wales v Ireland, Sevens and the clubs revolt

Date published: March 13 2019

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with a big day in Cardiff, the increasing allure of sevens and the latest developments among the parties vying for supremacy in governance of the game…

All on the line in Cardiff

After Wales’ opening night win over France, Warren Gatland suggested that his team had ‘forgotten how to lose.’ Analysing their fourth from four in this Six Nations suggests he is right.

Both George North and Alun Wyn Jones on Saturday considered the Welsh generally a level down from what they showed in the autumn, while only the ‘Grand Slam Bonus Point’ on offer for a win on Saturday ensures that if Wales win, England have no mathematical chance of nicking the title.

Truth is, for all the talk about the Welsh expanding their strategy from ‘Warrenball’ as its detractors used to love calling it, Wales are that team that is simply difficult to play against. They are compact, disciplined – the concession of only three penalties in a game when England took the ball into some form of contact 150 times was extraordinary – and extremely fit. The depth of talent is there and crucially, all players are palpably aware of their jobs.

But both England and Ireland have run in more tries and scored more points. Only Scotland have scored fewer tries, while Italy are the only other side to register no bonus-points at all.

Wales are not winning these games by running opposition out of town or destroying them. They just simply wait and absorb the pressure, take their chances, then continue to wait for other teams to run out of gas and/or ideas, patient and disciplined and knowing the chances will come.

Granted, it’s not setting the world alight but 13 from 13 speaks for itself. And when it really comes to the crunch, the team that is hardest to beat will be the one in with a shout in Japan.

So this is a big day in Cardiff. Wales face an Irish team touted as the best in Europe a month or so ago. Since then they’ve been stuffed out of sight by England and flattered to deceive against Italy and Scotland. Only last week did the Irish look like they were finding their feet again. But when on their feet, this is still an Irish side hard to stop.

Wales v Ireland clashes have been pretty epic down the years. This one will be no different.

Unpredictability – and rarity – are the blessings

While uncertainty over the future reigns supreme in the 15-a-side game, and while the Test results remain generally reasonably predictable, Sevens has provided a blessing for those loving sporting surprises this year.

It’s not just the USA topping the table, it’s results like Canada beating Fiji, Chile drawing with South Africa and Spain overcoming New Zealand. The longer it goes on, the more Sevens is using its bite-sized format, fast-action nature and unpredictability to draw in ever more fans and participants.

It’s excellent for rugby generally and, while the squabbles continue of how to structure the XV calendar and manage the players right, a leaf from the Sevens book could be well taken: there are only a few Sevens weekends through the season, which makes them all the more exciting when they come around. Less is more…

But depressingly predictable…

Yep, the clubs have begun revolting. No prizes for guessing which two countries’ clubs are stirring the pot and insisting that World Rugby’s new notional Test calendar ‘challenges the balance’ between club and Test rugby.

“The professional leagues now seem to be excluded from this new work, even though the World Rugby project would be a major change to the San Francisco agreement for all elements of the professional game and impact other competitions,” a joint statement from the PRL (England’s clubs) and LNR (France’s clubs) said.

“LNR and PRL regret the fact that World Rugby is not fully involving all stakeholders in seeking a consensus and can only reserve the option to take any action to preserve their rights and competitions.”

Okay, but those are the competitions where at least eight weeks of a 22/26-week season are played without the international players? Those are competitions where a finals round has to be tacked on to ensure that competitive integrity is vaguely fulfilled? When the professional leagues got together and decided they’d make a better fist of things than the unions concerned, did they include the Test calendar in their ‘new works’ of the time?

The myopic and defensive nature of all the statements, plans, schedules and negotiations throughout all of this simply fails to acknowledge one simple fact: there is no balance when there is too much rugby in the calendar. If only both sides could try and acknowledge this, we might find it a lot easier to get plans laid.

Loose Pass compiled by Lawrence Nolan