Loose Pass

Date published: May 3 2016

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the exit of Rob Andrew and the debate over mid-air tackling…

This is the way his time ends: not with a bang, but a…*

Whimper would be to do Rob Andrew a disservice, but it was hardly the fingers to lips, drop mic, exit left finale that lots choose at the end of an elite sporting tenure. In typical RFU – and the modern-day Rob Andrew – fashion, it was an exit delivered with a brief press note at a time of day when most of England are sitting down to evening tea and not bothered who is running the domestic professional game. And just as we all prepared a sharp intake of breath in reaction, there followed another, equally brief, press note with the news that Nigel Melville, once Andrew’s supplier from the base of scrums, would be his successor. By the time anyone could get on the phone to RFU HQ, the answering machine was on. ‘It’s the right time’ said the press note. Not for bloody us it wasn’t.

Would Andrew deserve the mic drop? Many would say not. His nickname (‘squeaky’) was supposedly given to him because of his clean-cut image, it could just as easily have been because he was possessed of the sort of teflon political personality that ensured the dirt never stuck – and as you can imagine working for the RFU, there’s plenty of it flying around.

In fairness to him, he probably developed that through necessity. Having held off the challenge of Stuart Barnes and one or two others to command the English number ten jersey for a decade, he then became one of the professional game’s staunchest defenders, alienating many at his former club Wasps by plundering some of their best players (on the back of Sir John Hall’s chequebook) to bring a Premiership title up north.

Eight years of verbal tennis with the RFU followed that title, culminating in the RFU deciding to hire the rebel and channel his energy to their own ends; more or less, to put his money where his mouth was. Andrew the loudmouth advocate determined to force the RFU to take the pro game forward was hired by the RFU to do just that.

The problem was: this was now 2006. England’s glorious night in Sydney was a distant enough memory for the pain of the recent years to be fading, recent enough for it to be turning to anger. The abject inability of the RFU to harness the know-how of that generation of players in coaching, advising or technical  roles as they did their own mic drops is one of the greatest failures of England’s governing body, and Andrew surely played a part in this.

Andrew’s response to the frustration was often changing his job title: operations director became professional rugby director became director of professional rugby. It mattered not which one, England’s rugby sputtered and lurched. He oversaw the sacking of England coaches Andy Robinson, Brian Ashton and Martin Johnson – the lone and horribly bungled attempt at revisiting 2003. The Ashton sacking in particular was a reminder that Andrew, the man who used to shout so loud at the RFU, had lost his voice just when his employee, who really hadn’t done an awful job, needed him. It was undignified and not squeaky clean at all.

You can criticise all that if you like, but you should remember also that the 2008 Heads of Agreement between England and the clubs on player release was brokered by him. It will soon be updated, remarkably, to nobody’s chagrin. And when we moan – as we will – about the stuffed calendar, we should also remember Andrew was, as far back as 2000, an advocate of a structured season building up to a logical finale, something still unfortunately missing from the sport.

Furthermore, while elite teams in his time have stuttered, Andrew’s is the player pathway that is starting to churn out regular dollops of world-class talent including the teams that won two U20 World Cups.

England now have a Grand Slam again, won with a side showing plenty of youth. Despite all the politics and ball-dodging Andrew has created and performed, if England do get to glory in Tokyo, they will still need to quietly doff cap to a man who laid one of the platforms – one that squeaks now and then.

*With apologies to T.S.Eliot

Punishing the innocent is not regulation

Was I the only one to react with raised eyebrow to Leolin Zas’ red card on Saturday? It goes into the book Anthony Watson’s on Alex Goode and a couple of others this season that are stretching the law a little too thin.

It’s not that he was carded. The law is pretty clear about judging such incidents on outcomes not intent – as intent is impossible to gauge 100 percent accurately.

But is there a change to the law that could be looked at? A fair catch law like in NFL, where the receiving player waves his arm and thereafter must not be touched during the act of catching (of after, but clearly in rugby you could allow the catcher to be crunched). A ban on jumping to catch altogether?

Neither Zas nor Watson could avoid their collisions – in Watson’s case he was somewhat poisonously placed in that position by Chris Ashton’s sly check. A red card in instances like those is not a good outcome for anyone; red cards are for dirty and foul play, not adherence to standard technique (who takes their eye off the ball when it’s up in the air?) We need to find a way for players to not end up red carded for doing something they’ll have done since they were nippers.

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens