Loose Pass: Angles, fitness, rollockings and X-factor in the Six Nations

Lawrence Nolan
Loose Pass image 14 February 2023.jpg

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with angles, fitness, rollockings, and X-factor…

Touchy, touchy

Loose Pass sat on Saturday and enjoyed, as surely any rugby fan did, a match for the ages.

It wasn’t just that Ireland were brilliant and France were also brilliant, just a little less brilliant. It was that it had everything. Just everything. Miraculous tackles, acrobatic tries, big hits, high-risk passes, the lot.

And yes, it also had its controversy too, enough in fact that French fans could justifiably walk away thinking ‘we wuz robbed’, despite Ireland also thoroughly deserving the win that they enjoyed.

Lots of comments below these articles have, upon reading critical reviews of officiating minutiae within these lines, pointed out that Planet Rugby put out an editorial not so long ago saying we would explicitly leave match officials alone.

Said editorial also made very clear that we would continue to look at decisions in matches in an objective manner. There’s a big difference between the observation: ‘Wayne Barnes was biased and is useless’ and the observation that ‘the decision not to send Uini Atonio off permanently for his tackle on Rob Herring did not, to our mind, conform to the current laws and edicts surrounding head contact.’ The former phrase foments the sort of ugliness that hounded Mr. Barnes not so long ago, the latter is one that we’d like to imagine would spark up a robust debate.

Loose Pass was surprised at that call. However, there were enough points of mitigation for Mr. Barnes to be able to argue back; Atonio did wrap, and the initial point of contact was not directly to the head. But we did think it perilously close enough to the neck to pass the ‘high degree of danger’ threshold that Mr. Barnes thought had not been breached. And there, probably, the debate comes to a standstill: it’s a matter of perception.

The call that really baffled was the decision to allow James Lowe’s spectacular try.

French hacks have since found a rear-view camera angle which offers a more defining view of Lowe’s trailing foot grazing the grass, citing the usual conspiracy theories about local television crews dictating the TMO’s possibilities. If the angle is real – it is difficult to know who to trust in the era of adobe – yes, we need to know why that was not shown at the time.

But even in the angles replayed live, it was obvious to all around me – Irish fans included – that the tip of Lowe’s toecap was obscured from view by the turf in front of it as his foot swooshed sideways.

The Aviva pitch is a fine, thick, lush and well-manicured stretch of turf. There are no bare patches. If Lowe’s toecap was obscured from view in the angle we had, it was either because the toecap brushed the blades of grass it was obscured from view by or because it briefly visited another dimension in time and space. We’re willing to exclude the latter as a possibility.

As some fans did point out, Lowe’s foot angle was not changed by the contact, meaning his toecap brushed the turf, a highly moveable object, but probably did not touch the actual ground, an extremely immovable one. Which raises the question: must it be the soil that is touched for it to register as contact, or only the grass which grows from it? Our view is the latter. It would appear the TMO, and all the match officials who watched the video replay, believe it is the former. It is the only plausible reason we can think of for what was a critical call in the match that, in our view, was wrong.

Things that will be different in September

England’s performance on Sunday was as underwhelming as it was clinical. Steve Borthwick’s assertion that England are currently “not very good at anything” rang true for large parts of the game, with the exceptions of breakdown contesting, scrums and mauls, long since basic go-to ingredients for a new coach seeking to create a winning foundation.

Perhaps what was most surprising was the drop-off in intensity later in the game. To put it bluntly, England looked knackered.

There are many possible reasons for this, chief among them the murderous regime Eddie Jones apparently used to run, combined with a Premiership season that continues to mount in intensity and length. England’s players are palpably not unfit, but they do carry an air of fatigue around with them at times, evident in some of the errant decision-making and fine skill execution.

The point has been made here before, however, that Mr. Jones has an extremely good record at World Cups, which is when he can assert his regime on a squad without the irritating interruptions of Premierships and such, not to mention making them good at everything he wants them to be good at, rather than having to compromise on that with what the players’ club coaches want them to be good at.

It will be interesting to see what else England do become ‘very good at’ during the course of this tournament, but it will also be interesting to see how they fare in September after a bit of a rest and an uninterrupted build-up to the France showpiece. Loose Pass would wager that a bit of a rest might do the team the world of good.

The scene of frustration

Wales are in a terrible rut. The union in disarray, the club game in need of major surgery, the coffers bare, and the national team form collapsing.

There were barely any bright moments to take away from the defeat to Scotland, but if ever there was a moment encapsulating where Welsh rugby is at the moment, it was the tirade directed as Rio Dyer by Dan Biggar after the former chucked him a pass.

Was it a bad pass? It’s possible Dyer threw it a mite early, but Biggar was not even looking his way, in a situation where such a pass is absolutely at least one of the top two most likely actions; even more likely when the recipient is the team’s kicker.

Either way, that public dressing-down showed the simmering frustration, certainly showed a strained relationship between the old guard and new, and absolutely demonstrated what a job Warren Gatland has on his hands this time.

Mr. Gatland’s prize talent has always been coaxing out of a group of players a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. But just as glaring as the frustration on Saturday was the lack of any sort of game-breaking talent around which the Welsh can currently build – such as a Finn Russell. In the absence thereof, it looked as though Biggar’s rant epitomised a less positive mentoring attitude between old and young.

The last time Mr. Gatland took Wales over, he did at least have players such as Shane Williams, Adam Jones, Stephen Jones and Martyn Williams; world-class, in their prime and performing. There was a squad backbone.

The backbone in the current squad seems to be past its prime now, and there is precious little to fill the void. The Welsh rebuild will take years, rather than months.

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