Loose Pass: Cracks, grievances, blurred lines, sadness and songs

Lawrence Nolan
Loose Pass image 29 November2022.jpg

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with symptoms, grievances, tricks, threats, sadness and songs…

The cracks appear

They – those who know all and are never named – do say that a key symptom of disharmony or discontent within a squad is when discipline goes AWOL.

But to say that sweepingly is not specific enough. It’s the kind of disciplinary breaches that tell a truer tale. For examples, look no further than the difference between Australia’s ‘lack of discipline’ and England’s; and Wales’ to a lesser extent.

Australia were done at a couple of scrums, guilty of playing too close to the edges at rucks. But none of their penalties were down to actual indiscipline, the mental laziness that leads one to conceive of doing something clearly wrong but to do it anyway.

Justin Tipuric’s trip, Jonny Hill’s manhandling of Faf de Klerk, both were huge turning points in their respective games. Down to 14 and leaderless, Wales caved in, unable to close out a game from a 21-point lead. England, perhaps still with a sniff of a chance, saw a penalty reversed at a crucial moment. The sniff turned into a full-blown brain sneeze from Hill.

Australia go home with an ugly record from a gruelling year, yet credit has been built. They lost by three and one point against the two best teams in the world, then conquered Cardiff with up to 40 players missing. The defeat to Italy notwithstanding, this will have been a tour full of learnings and with progress in places. The high penalty counts have frustrated, but it has come from the competitive edge the Wallabies have continued to show, even in adversity.

England and Wales are both now down the path of ‘formal reviews’ of their coaching staff. Wayne Pivac and co. have produced inconsistency epitomised by the defeat to Australia. There’s been some breathtaking rugby at times, but the hard edge that helped Wales survive under Warren Gatland and especially Shaun Edwards, is gone. Most critics in Wales recognise both aspects; but Tipuric’s trip and a couple of other incidents in the match are demonstrative of a team lacking trust in what they are doing, even if there are few reports of explicit discontent among the playing cadre.

But what might a new coach do? Change generations? That, perhaps, is needed now in Wales more than anything. Mr. Pivac has blooded a few newbies, but not as a part of any perceived plan. Yet the older generation looks decidedly creaky now and any chance missed to bring players through properly only delays the onset of possible progress. But a change of generation now is far too late for a World Cup campaign.

The reports of player discontent within the England camp continue to grow however. The high turnover of coaching staff, the incoherence of the team at times, the ongoing mixed bag of results, all will count against Eddie Jones, with the RFU notably opting against a public vote of confidence this time and the fans beginning to be restless.

The credit built up by the 2019 World Cup run has run dry and there is precious little liquidity to see Jones through after only one home win from four this November.

Yet there is one aspect perhaps still overlooked: barring his first season, the only time Mr. Jones enjoyed significant success, World Cup 2019, was also the only time he had his squad together for a sustained length of time. At the start of November he also said as much, noting how many of his players come from different clubs and playing cultures, making cohesion hard; it is worth emphasising, there was little in the way of a lack of cohesion in Japan.

Both Mr. Pivac and Mr. Jones may get their time to see things through, but the cracks in their teams need fixing fast: key to both is knowing whether the player indiscipline is symptomatic of the respective dressing rooms being lost.

Where are the tweets?

Well-beaten though they were, Loose Pass felt England got a pretty rough deal from the close calls on Saturday. When Damian Willemse caught the high ball from which he launched the counter-attack to spark Kurt-Lee Arendse’s score, we were quite sure that although not directly obstructed, Freddie Steward was distracted enough by Arendse to prevent him from making a tackle on Willemse. Certainly Arendse’s change of direction took him into Steward’s path and caused him to hesitate, just as it took him away from Willemse. Clever, but still obstruction.

The pass from Willie le Roux to Arendse in the same movement also clearly left the hands moving forward too (the irony after that pass in France!), while for the Eben Etzebeth try, law 13 is quite clear about players not playing the ball on the ground, and we’ve not even started on his positioning in front of the ruck’s back foot, whence the ball squirted out to him.

Mr. Jones was aggrieved about the scrum officiating as well, but in a couple of key moments, South Africa got some good fortune from a lack of TMO oversight, which makes it all the more fascinating that somehow there is nothing for South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus to tweet about his team working on this week. He must be satisfied with their mastery of all the skills.

Blurred lines

And so while we flag Arendse’s fine-edge-of-the-law line, Loose Pass is also now flagging major irritation at the increased usage of the ‘guy-not-going-for-the-catch-just-ambling-back-trying-to-work-out-where-to-stand-for-the-next-phase-just-happened-to-be-in-the-chaser’s-way’ tactic. Or as we call it here: tactical obstruction.

There’s been a successful crackdown on players not moving to chase kicks too early to help receivers, it would be great if we could also get a successful crackdown on players obstructing legitimate chasers by ensuring they get behind the receiver.

We agree it could leave a receiver exposed at times, but given the new law directives about competing for high balls, receivers now do get added protections. Meanwhile, we’ve also long advocated for a mark to be callable anywhere on the pitch rather than just in the 22, which would re-balance the risk.

The ongoing tactical obstruction of kick chasers is negative and frustrating, and needs addressing.

Ugly business

The decision not to highlight Wayne Barnes’ officiating achievement of 100 Tests at half-time at Twickenham was a multi-layered stain on the game, a stain which starts with the childish tweets of a national representative, continues through an abhorrent shower of trolling from an ill-educated section of the public and ends with a complete lack of even an apology, acceptance of responsibility, anything from anyone that might acknowledge that what should have been an enjoyable occasion for Mr. Barnes and his family was nilled by some really poor behaviour.

We can’t undo that, but Loose Pass will explicitly state here its congratulations to Mr. Barnes on a terrific achievement, capping a career in which he has added immense value to the game. Hopefully there will be an occasion where he and his family can be suitably appreciated one day without fear of abuse.

RIP

It was with tremendous sadness that Loose Pass heard of the passing of George ‘Doddie’ Weir.

The battle he waged so stoutly against an invincible foe has been a story well-told for months and years now, so it would do readers well also to remember both how good a player he was, and how good a character.

His early playing days were marked by a somewhat optional attitude to hard training and fitness; many are the stories of his clashes with Jim Telfer regarding whole-hearted participation in both.

Yet Mr. Telfer also accompanied Doddie through his career, from a youngster at Melrose, through Scotland in the 1990s, and on a Lions tour in 1997. That playing career also included – a fact less trumpeted but significant in our eyes – a four-month stint in Waikato in 1990. Not many overseas players cracked such an invite in New Zealand in those days; the most notable other to have done so was one Martin Johnson. Such was Weir’s talent and ability.

Professionalism, accompanied by the auspices of Jonny Wilkinson mentor Steve Black at Newcastle, did coax Doddie into a more tailored fitness regime, resulting, among other things, in a Lions call-up in 1997 for which he was a clear Test squad candidate. A cowardly stamp by Mpumalanga’s Marius Bosman ended Doddie’s tour early though and threatened his career.

Doddie never forgave Bosman – despite his cheery nature and love of a good jape he was also ferociously competitive – but his signature response was to name a shoe-scraper by his doorstep after his assailant, so that he ‘could stamp on him every day.’

He leaves a significant legacy to research into his ultimate assailant, motor neurone disease, in the form of the millions he raised through charity work during his illness. He also leaves a significant legacy to the game he loved, which will miss him dearly.

The noisy noise annoys

Why have we gone back to opera before rugby matches? The anthems are for the fans and players. Please give it back to them.

READ MORE: Ex-England wing backs a change at head coach after dismal Autumn Nations Series campaign