Loose Pass

Date published: December 12 2017

This week we will be mostly concerning ourselves with struggling giants, foreign imports, drunken fans and iron wills.

Barren spells

What’s up with Sarries?

We thought Christmas had come early when the back-to-back European champions were drawn in the same pool as last year’s beaten finalists, Clermont Auvergne.

We were counting down the days to the French side’s visit to Allianz Park and we readied ourselves for a veritable festive feast.

Well, a serving of stuffing we got.

Clermont punctuated the home side’s unsurpassed 20-match unbeaten run in Europe by inflicting Saracens’ heaviest ever defeat in Europe. It ended 46-14 to the visitors. 46-14!  And those two tries from the hosts were nothing more than consolation prizes – Alivereti Raka was celebrating a hat-trick as early as the 24th minute.

There’s no escaping it: the Fez Men are looking a little Tommy Copper at present. Conjured rabbits aren’t exactly flying out of their famous hats. Win the game? They had real trouble even organising it.

Indeed, they are without a victory in six games and have just gone zero for three in the Premiership.

Elsewhere, we were looking forward to seeing Leicester contest a vintage European bout with Munster at Thomond Park. It’s the stuff of which dreams are made, but the Tigers are hardily purring at present. They went into the big game off the back of consecutive Premiership defeats and duly succumbed, ending the day a full 23 points adrift of their hosts.

And Northampton Saints, also devout and decorated European campaigners, were rolled over by the low-flying Ospreys – at home. An ignominy to be tagged to the back of five straight Premiership games, including last week’s home defeat by Newcastle.

On the other side of the Premiership form scale, Exeter and Gloucester have gone five from five in the Premiership and currently sit one and two in the table.

Can you spot a pattern here?

For those still floundering, here’s the big clue: Worcester Warriors have picked up just two Premiership wins this season, and they came over Leicester and Northampton on consecutive weekends in November.

Yes, it’s down to November. When the big cats are away on international duty, the mice not only come out to play, they often win.

It seems wholly perverse that the English clubs which donate the most bodies during Test windows pay for the honour in league points, and it simply beggars belief that we, as paid-up supporters, have come to accept large stretches of inferior rugby.

It all tends to even out eventually, with the RFU paying clubs for their donations to the national cause and the cream rising to the top in time for the business-end of the season.

But rugby’s unique and troubling insistence on running concurrent competitions has far-reaching implications. Having the local pin-up boy on your books is nice, but those clubs going well in Europe are putting massive premiums on Test-quality stars who will not be called up for Test duty.

Just look at La Rochelle. Out of practically nowhere they are now being talked about as possible European champions. They have done this by building a squad that is virtual impervious to Test-match disruption. It’s not great for the national game but it works for them, and we have nothing but respect for their approach: in business you need to put yourself first.

In that respect, it looks like Wasps have unearthed a veritable diamond in Nizaam Carr, with the 26-year-old Bok recently admitting not to be against the idea of extending his short stay in England. The Stormers might have something to say about that.

Wasps’ gain would be South Africa’s loss, but Carr would only be the latest player to step away from the Test arena during the prime of life.

In their quest to insulate their squads to the draughts that blow through Test windows, European clubs are targeting players like Carr from across the southern hemisphere, with South Africa, Australia and Argentina the hardest hit. And for evidence as to the damage it has wrought, you need not look any further than Test results from, yes, November.

So we’re back to our old bugbear of congested schedules. We’ve never said it will be easy to solve, but it’s getting to the point where some sort of solution is now an utmost priority.

You can’t put two products into direct competition and expect both to thrive – especially when you’ve handicapped both by the mere act of putting them in direct competition.

Boys on tour

2017 hasn’t been short of depressing tweets, but Loose Pass believes it has found the most dispiriting yet.

It was penned by Mark Cleland, the British Transport Police’s chief inspector for Wales. In his review of the aftermath of the Wales v New Zealand game in Cardiff, he noted that when it came to “drunken violent behaviour … yet again #Rugby fans were worse than #Football fans”.

This led – as it tends to on Twitter – to a series of angry rebuttals and counter accusations and general abuse of Cleland and his position.

This – as it tends to on Twitter – only served to underline the validity of his original claim, and it is to his credit that he stuck to his guns, pointing out at length that he was only reporting what his eyes and ears and officers were telling him.

It pains us to admit it but much of what Cleland describes chimes with our own experiences over the last decade or so. Watching Test rugby from the stands isn’t what it once was.

Beers used to be enjoyed rather than necked, and the banter between opposition fans was always amusing and based on deep, mutual and fond respect. There’s an edge to it these days, and the humour has been all but replaced by foul and abusive language.

Loose Pass would like to believe that those that degrade themselves at internationals aren’t true rugby fans. We can claim this as club and provincial games still generate the sort of warmth and bonhomie which you would actively want your children to experience.

But we shouldn’t grow too complacent about it. Rugby’s famous soul is under threat, and it is beholden upon all of his to uphold the values and traditions we hold so dear.

Or as Cleland puts it: “Behave as if your mam is with you.”

That’s good advice … but he really doesn’t know our mam.

Mind over matter

For those still on the hunt for a stocking filler for the rugby type in their lives, look no further than ‘The Big Little Things’ by Henry Fraser.

Fraser looked destined to follow his brother, former Saracen Will, into professional rugby until a freak accident left him paralysed from the neck down.

The book is his own account of how he wrestled his life back from the very edge of oblivion. Through sheer strength of personality and superhuman determination he chose to simply reject the hand that fate had dealt him. Instead he focused on what he could still do, and he attacked those area with a resolve that belies his tender years.

Now, just a few years on from his catastrophic injury, he is an award-winning author, acclaimed mouth artist and much-sought motivational speaker.

Indeed, such is the positivity that pours off every page, you’re left to ponder not what rugby has missed by his absence, but what it stands to gain from his presence. For if elite rugby is really all about the top two inches, this guy is surely set to become one of the great coaches of our game.

Loose Pass is compiled by former Planet Rugby editor Andy Jackson