This week we will be mostly concerning ourselves with Bilbao, high tackles and England’s Brad Shields.
Pain in the neck
There was a sense that the Champions Cup Final was to be a timeless occasion even before Racing 92 entered the fray wearing traditional Basque berets. Those preening dandies could have gone the whole hog and completed the look with ancient leather boots and a ball made out of a pig’s bladder – it would not have affected the spectacle one jot.
But that’s not to say we were disappointed with what we witnessed. On the contrary. As a bookend to a season long on flare and rife with bonus points, what a joy it was to behold a thoroughly old-fashioned armwrestle. Tries? There wasn’t even a sniff at one – and the game was all the better for it.
But the occasion wasn’t completely anchored in the past. It was shot-through with that most modern of aliments: the tackle that’s adjudged to have begun in the Goldilocks Zone, but then deemed to have travelled too high and become too hot for today’s sensibilities.
How many did referee Wayne Barnes spot? Enough for him to feel obliged to hold two impromptu lectures on World Rugby’s latest tackle decrees. Too bad if your bounty slips into your tackle, he reminded his fearful flock, the result will always be a penalty.
Yes, it was slightly greasy underfoot in Bilbao, but was it not odd how many players slipped into tackles?
We’re not casting aspersions here (and we’re certainly not brave enough to claim it’s play-book material), but if you’re going into contact, you might as well go to ground that micro-second early and see if you can’t win your side a penalty. That’s what rugby players do: they are as canny as they are fearless.
This all feeds back into our nagging suspicion that the new protocols on high tackles have little to do with player safety and all to do with World Rugby’s continued and concerted attempt to disenfranchise defenders.
With tacklers ordered to do their business as far below the nipple-line as possible, the hope was that attackers could use their unbound arms to get the pass away and keep rugby fast and as free-flowing as possible.
But professional players are programmed to eke out penalties, and we dare say there’s never been an easier way to win a shy at the sticks than by simply ‘slipping’ into contact.
But would players really risk their necks to win a shot at goal? In a word, yes. Particularly in the static fringes of rucks and tackles where, dare we say it, break-neck speed is almost impossible to muster.
Plus, they would have seen the statistics. It is the tackler, not the tackled, that stands the greatest risk of being injured. It has always been thus, and will remain this way.
Indeed, requesting lower tackling will only increase the prevalence of injury, for throwing your head/neck area at pounding, gym-honed thighs will always carry greater risk than having an arm wrapped slowly around the neck.
The tackle area will never be black and white, but World Rugby’s insistence that ‘neck is neck’ has erased all shades of grey from the law book.
For sanity, for safety, for fear of growing cynicism, referees must once again be free to differentiate between what they deem to be reckless and what they perceive to be innocuous and/or accidental.
And they must be free to question just how and why ball-carriers are having such trouble with their balance.
Bank of Mum and Dad
If you can’t beat ’em, nick their players.
That’s one take on the RFU’s decision to fast-track Brad Shields into the full England squad – and before we cop any flack we’d like to point out that it isn’t ours.
But it isn’t too far off the mark.
Leaving aside the fact that Shields might feel terribly English in his heart (doubtful), he is the product of New Zealand Rugby – nothing more, nothing less.
The governing body invested thousands in him, identifying him as a potential star whilst a schoolboy in Lower Hutt and transforming him into a professional athlete, a member of the New Zealand side which won the 2011 Junior World Championships, and the captain of a Super Rugby franchise.
They have every right to feel aggrieved that all this money and effort will now be put to use against them. And how will it affect their future dealings with kids who also have ancestors who hail from countries higher up rugby’s financial food-chain?
Therein lies the rub. You can’t blame Shields for making this decision – and it was his alone to make. England are offering him a clearer path to the top – and more money. It’s more of a career choice than a rugby wish, and we must never forget that these guys have about decade – if not less – to feather their nests. They need to follow the money.
But where does this leave unions that are unable to offer the sort of financial incentives that the RFU is able to flaunt? Surely Twickenham should do the decent thing and pay New Zealand Rugby for building a player they already rate as superior to the likes of Don Armand.
And if they are not willing to pay up, World Rugby needs to step in and address the rules on ancestry. With the residency qualification period for international players set to become more stringent, expect scores of grannies to be dug up not just in England but across the whole of planet rugby.
Regular readers of Loose Pass will know that we’re often rather unkind to the game’s administrators. So credit where it’s due: they played a blinder by opting to stage the European Finals in Bilbao.
Yes, the local hotels saw the game as an opportunity to hike room prices, but the city itself can not be faulted. Indeed, we hope blazers from Cardiff, Paris and London (well, Twickenham) were there to witness the ease in which supporters travelled about the place. But it’s not really high science – just more trains and buses working longer hours.
And what a privilege to explore a new city and to share our crazy game with a relatively new audience.
Spreading the gospel has never been as exciting or so easy, and we dearly hope that it has sent minds a-whirring. Imagine big rugby finals being played out in places like Berlin, Lisbon, Oslo, Copenhagen, Prague! No disrespect to the Geordies among you, but ‘Newcastle 2019’ doesn’t exactly inspire the same levels of wanderlust.
But the Challenge Cup curtain-raiser on the eve of the big one needs a rethink if we are going to expand our horizons. A crude straw poll of Gloucester and Cardiff fans tells us that they would have been in Bilbao had the game taken place on Saturday rather than the Friday night. As it turns out, the game – a great one at that – played out in front of around 20,000 empty seats.
So how about a proper double-header? Or, more realistically, both games played on the same Saturday in the same city but at different venues. Allow a couple of hours for passage from one to another (and perhaps a beer or two), and you’ll have a product that needs no marketing.
The idea is yours if you want it, ERC. We’ll take our commission in tickets.
Loose Pass is compiled by former Planet Rugby editor Andy Jackson