Loose Pass

Date published: February 7 2017

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with notes from the Six Nations and the passing of another rugby legend…

Good Chat

If the opening weekend of the tournament confirmed the suspicions of all that this will be among the most open Six Nations tournaments ever, the banter among the protagonists and pundits also confirmed that it still matters more than any other tournament.

Ronan O’Gara hoped “Ireland hammer Scotland (on Saturday) for the way they behaved in the week”, going on to label the Scots as ‘too mouthy’ and ‘unable to back it up.’ Gregor Townsend’s retweet of O’Gara’s outburst the day after Scotland’s 27-22 win is unlikely to see bygones being bygones the next time the two meet.

Staying in Scotland, Jim Telfer, rarely short of an emotion-pricking discourse, roused his countrymen with the usual tribal broadside: “If you ever think about (Scotland) wanting separation from England just sit 10 minutes in Twickenham and listen to them. They think they’re superior and a lot of them will come from the south-east, bags of money and bags of this and bags of that.”

Eddie Jones made sure that his surname will be perceived as absolutely nothing to do with ancestry in Wales this week after pointing out the relative size of the principality to England. The Welsh are unlikely to stay quiet on that one for long.

If the French and Italians are a little quieter in all this, it’s generally because the French under Guy Novès are reacting to everything with little more than a Gallic shrug and the Italians don’t quite have the tribal history the rest enjoy.

If the rugby itself is a little stuttery at the moment – new law directives and pared down rucks and all – the atmosphere is richer than it’s been for a while this year. Roll on week two!

Meanwhile, on the pitch…

It was stuttery at times. The scrum still needs work, while defences are, for now, generally sticking clear of counter-rucking and fanning out across the field.

The handling is what you’d expect from the first round of matches. All of it should improve; defences will get less time to stay disciplined as teams find their groove and recycle the ball better, handling will improve as moves and shapes become deeper ingrained. Officials will review themselves and their players and understand more about which props are doing what.

As for each team:

England and Eddie Jones, have much to mull over. Jones used the word ‘awful’ when talking about England’s display, and for long stretches of the game he was right. England won mostly because they were fitter and thus better able to compete as the game broke up, but in terms of actual rugby, France seemed the better team. The aspect of competing better has been the hallmark of Jones’ regime, but the skills are not sharper. Yes, much of the blame there rests with Premiership coaches, but if England really are to repeat their Grand Slam, they’ll have to up their skills as well as their fire.

France have the opposite problem. Under Novès the French are looking for more like their old selves: tough and large up front, and capable of breaking out from any part of the pitch at any moment (even if the chief threat on Saturday was a bloke named Scott Spedding). But their scrum and contest waned badly on Saturday in the final 15. Noves can only work with what he is given; the brutal French season desperately needs a rejig, and the team needs more leadership on the pitch

Wales’ progress in weeks to come will be heavily influenced by one decision: play Sam Davies or not. If Wales’ in-game improvement on Sunday can partly be put down to Italian fatigue and an improvement in the matchday weather, it can also be put down to Davies’ ability to take the ball on the fly, take it closer to the gainline, and make better decisions when he gets there. Wales have the luxury of two fly-halves with complementary abilities rather than imitational, but Davies is the match-winner, not the closer.

Italy will not win tight matches until they become fitter, nor until the other 14 players cut the dependence on Sergio Parisse.

Scotland gave the most complete performance of the weekend and must now be considered serious title contenders if the bulk of the squad can remain healthy. This victory displayed the importance of skills as well as fitness.

Ireland lost the game in the first half-hour – with all respect to Scotland’s brilliance in the same period. Nothing went right and it cost them. Don’t judge them on the one defeat, judge them on the fightback.

The passing of another legend

Loose Pass was once lucky enough to take an hour of coaching from Joost van der Westhuizen. Not one prone to epic speeches of technical minutiae, Joost arrived at the coaching camp and began explaining what scrum-halves do.

Not all those present enjoyed it, because of his habit of explaining what he was doing while he was doing it rather than the methodical step-by-step explanations of the other coaches, but if you were able to follow his instructions and explanations at speed and not be distracted by the flurries of limbs in front of you, you realised that this was also training you in the speed of thought and focus that scrum-halves need to be equipped with.

He lined up ten balls. With each ball he fired at the goalpost 15m away, he gave you a different piece of advice. Come at the ball from the side (whoosh), glance both sides of the ruck (whoosh), plant the foot (whoosh), toes at the target (whoosh), weight through the ball (whoosh), on it went, ten passes in probably around 30 seconds. And with each breathless instruction and each whoosh, the ball would arrow unerringly to its destination.

Then for fun, he went through the instructions again, this time passing with his left. Same result. And repeat, and repeat, and then we started repeating with him. Those who could follow him became better nines that day, those who wanted more time to think probably couldn’t.

What he didn’t coach was what everybody wanted to learn: how did he find those gaps which led to so many tries and golden Springbok moments?

The answer, of course, is that you can’t coach that stuff. You can maybe coach someone where to look, but you can’t give them the speed of thought, explosive acceleration and confidence to take them as he did.

Nor can you give them the competitive instinct, the instinct which saw him infamously bring down Jonah Lomu in the 1995 World Cup Final and the same instinct which saw him fight so fiercely on his behalf and for others during his illness.

Talking to him and watching him was the same. You looked at those disconcertingly pale blue eyes and would never be quite sure if he was concentrating on the moment or done with the moment already and thinking ahead, never totally sure if he was looking at you or through you.

Mostly it was probably the latter each time. If some said that made him aloof, so be it, but it was also this ability that made him a timelessly wonderful scrum-half, whose highlight reel never gets boring.

Rest in Peace Joost.

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens.