Loose Pass

Date published: January 2 2018

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with a tribute to Guy Novès, Northampton’s problems, pointless punishments and a cross-sporting dream…

Au revoir or adieu?

Not three hours had passed since last week’s message from the Queen said she was “…hoping that they (the French) rediscover their swagger” when the news broke that Bernard Laporte had ended Novès’ attempts at helping the French do just that.

It was news that, in all probability, has ended Noves’ career unless Toulouse come calling once more. A one-club man, he spent 13 seasons on Toulouse’s wing as a player and 22 years orchestrating the team in that famous one-kneed coaching posture (not forgetting a couple of years prior as an assistant).

His time in charge of Toulouse was nothing short of glittering: nine championships, four Heineken Cups and a pair of runners-up medals for each tournament as well. He was responsible for probably three of the great generations of French players emerging and dominating – the first of Califano, Pelous, Castaignede, Ntamack the second of Servat, Elissalde, Michalak, Jauzion, Clerc, the third with Maestri, Dusautoir, Picamoles, Medard.

He was considered for the national job after the 2007 World Cup, but declined the offer to stay with Toulouse. It wasn’t the first time he had declined the national team either: he ended his own international playing career. After declaring himself not yet recovered from a thigh injury ahead of one match, the selectors didn’t pick him again when he did declare fitness before the next. He promptly quit, alleging a lack of contact and respect from the federation. His decision to reject the national team and stay with Toulouse in 2007 smacked of lingering bitterness from that, as well as giving the impression that he simply wasn’t interested in anything outside la Ville Rose.

Yet, he embodied Frenchness. His unique and mildly eccentric coaching posture, his perpetually well-groomed appearance (tracksuits looked stylish on him) and weighty antipathy toward the English – he once ended a radio interview with the words “I’ll take no lessons from the English” – all combined to leave you in no uncertain terms where he came from, as did his occasional explosions of temper; he was led away by police after the Heineken Cup win in 2005 when stewards refused to let his family onto the pitch to celebrate with him.

But it was a strange last decade. He seemed unable to find a fourth generation to bring through at Toulouse, up against the stiffer competition that other clubs imported and finding no way to cope with the increasingly attritional demands of the French season. Toulouse looked outdated by the time Novès relented to take the national job.

He could not find selectoral consistency in the national team either, rarely his fault. Having started out looking to impose his own philosophy of forward bullies allowing graceful backs to play, combinations of injury and club/country overlaps left him returning to a more direct game, not his natural inclination. And as a coach who loved to let his players express themselves, the international level playing structures seemed to be too antithesis, while the inconsistencies in selections – again, rarely his fault – also left him unable to achieve that which he had been able to at Toulouse.

But whatever the recent criticisms thrown his way, nobody should forget what Novès contributed to the game of rugby at Toulouse, the abilities and calibre of player he developed and nurtured, the capacities for his teams to wow. That should be a legacy that lasts far longer than his time in charge of a national team governed by a national rugby framework in desperate need of a large shake-up. His sacking smacks of scapegoating in some ways – which should be another reason Noves should proudly disassociate himself from the FFR and reflect on two decades of terrific rugby his Toulouse teams gave to us all.

Low points

While on the subject of shake-ups: just what is happening at Northampton? The director of rugby gone, his son – clearly not enjoying one second of his rugby now – exposed against Harlequins by some catastrophic defence, the captain – and England captain – clearly out of form and spirit and chuckling with the opposition coach following a 50-point defeat… on it goes.

It wasn’t quite as bad, but the team’s defeat to Harlequins was similar to watching France fold against New Zealand in the last World Cup. Many of the players looked tired, unhappy, bored and unwilling.

If Mallinder’s sacking was supposed to solve the problem, it clearly hasn’t worked. Maybe Alan Gaffney will work wonders, but the over-riding impression is that there are problems elsewhere in the club, either higher up or among the playing staff, which also need addressing. The other over-riding impression is perhaps that Mallinder was also scapegoated…

How much for what?

It’s commendable of Bath that they knew it was coming and allowed it to happen anyway (or maybe Taulupe Faletau contributed to the fine), but the GBP 90,000 fine on the club for letting Faletau represent his country levied by Premiership Rugby is as ugly a piece of administration as it gets.

Let’s sum it up in a simple sentence: How can any governing body create such a prohibitive cost to a man opting to represent his country?

Bath CEO Tarquin McDonald also had something to say: “…we continue to believe that there is appetite for change and that this on-going conflict between the club and international calendars is not good for players, clubs or unions. We continue to support the objective of a solution for the separation of club and international calendars in a way which benefits players, clubs and unions, and brings an end to situations such as this.”

How long, in fact, do we have to wait before everybody gets their act together? It cannot be beyond the wit of these people to understand the human side of the game and start creating a scenario which includes it.

A world of laterals and crossing

A fascinating story from Worcester, where Christian Scotland-Williamson is set to depart the club and head for America’s NFL.

He’s the latest in a short, but distinguished list of sportsmen to make what seems to be a wholly counter-intuitive step, given the NFL’s allowance of crossing as a tactic, reluctance to offload in contact (an in-play pass is known as a lateral), and lack of regulation around the tackle.

The highest-profile current code-switcher (from rugby to NFL rather than the other way round) is New York Jets tight end Hayden Smith, once of Saracens. But maybe the most successful of all time is a chap called Richard Tardits.

Born in Bayonne, Tardits was already a French youth international before heading to college in America, where he broke tackling records for the Georgia Bulldogs college football team.

He subsequently played NFL for Phoenix and for famed coach Bill Parcells at the New England Patriots, before being somewhat mercilessly cut by Parcells because of a lingering injury. He subsequently played for the Mystic River Rugby Club, eventually making the Eagles full side and playing in the 1999 World Cup.

More on him can be found here – a story that makes for fascinating reading.

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens