Loose Pass: Gregor Townsend’s gripes, England’s problems and the mouthguard debate

Lawrence Nolan
Scotland duo Gregor Townsend and Finn Russell alongside England pair Maro Itoje and Steve Borthwick.

Scotland duo Gregor Townsend and Finn Russell alongside England pair Maro Itoje and Steve Borthwick.

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with selection restrictions, England’s problems in the Six Nations and the mouthguard debate…

Gregor’s gripes

It was flagged in this column just before the tournament; indeed the crew here in PR Towers was a little mystified as to why more had not been made of it.

So Gregor Townsend‘s frustrated tirade at his not being given access to his players during the Six Nations fallow weeks – despite said players not playing a snitch of rugby for the clubs who are so keen to have them back – was at the very least confirmation that this actually is an issue.

His use of the words “stretching the tournament’s credibility” was particularly pertinent, not to mention ironic in the wake of Scotland beating England 30-11 over the final 60 minutes, but it is absolutely becoming an issue that needs addressing.

The RFU is not directly involved in the quirk of the schemes that ensures that England coaches have full access to their Premiership-based players while other countries do not. Players signed their contracts, Premier Rugby Limited signed other contracts, the clubs stipulate their own conditions without prejudice in their own interests. Everybody knew what they were getting into. And with so many governing bodies and stakeholder interests conflicting – and rugby’s hotch-potch seasonal organisation being what it is – harmony and unified policies were always unlikely. But it seems close to childishly intransigent for these clubs to insist that they get these players to train when there is no actual club rugby for them to play.

Bernard Jackman’s Six Nations Team of the Week: ‘Ridiculous’ wing stars for Scotland

The Six Nations has been a huge boost to a season which was looking tired and overfull in the wake of the World Cup. Crucially, it has been a tournament not dominated by those with the deepest pockets and resources, nor plagued by the injury or squad rotation that the Investec Champions Cup has been. There have been no whipping boys, despite Ireland’s best efforts. The tournament’s identity and that of its teams remains as strong as ever. As does its draw to neutrals.

The same cannot be said of the Premiership, which is nearly 25 per cent lighter on teams than it was last season and does seem to meander to its conclusion as a concept despite the quality of many of the games. Premiership attendances are in the midst of a well-documented decline, but Six Nations crowds are as strong as ever – also not always guaranteed for international matches in the modern era.

It is right to point out that constraints upon one team but not another affects the integrity of the tournament, and those in charge might like to reflect that while the sport continues to search for the magic recipe that keeps all teams on a sustainable and even keel, the Six Nations is the most functional and colourful tournament in its shop window. Threatening the integrity of that just to tick a few performance boxes in contracts is self-defeating.

I want to break free

A ‘thorough and honest’ review of England’s defeat to Scotland has been promised from Steve Borthwick, but there seem to be deeper considerations.

“We probably didn’t stick to the gameplan,” said Maro Itoje. “We started playing tip-tap rugby. We want to be a team that plays direct and is confrontational.”

That’s fair enough, but the manner of the errors – many of them coming from attempts to be more tip-tap than direct – seemed to indicate both impatience from some members of the squad at just being direct and confrontational and a potential division between one generation and another.

“Some of it is the reality of being in the middle of a Test match and everything is 100mph and there’s pressure on you and the execution is not as good as it needs to be,” said George Ford about the multiple handling errors that dogged England, but errors such as the wide pass from Ben Earl that shot into touch with not a white shirt within metres of it were those of a team that is not familiar or comfortable with making the passes required to be more expansive.

There is a sense that the baton needs passing. Fin Smith’s orchestration of Northampton’s win in Munster remains fresh in many minds, far fresher than Ford’s drop goal haul against Argentina. Manu Tuilagi has been a terrific player for the 20 minutes he has been fully fit over the past few years, but there are plenty of centres able to last actual games. What about giving Alfie Barbeary or even – whisper it – Zach Mercer a chance to do something? Why look to a 37-year-old just because Alex Mitchell isn’t fit?

Ex-England international calls for Steve Borthwick’s and four players’ heads

The overwhelming sense of England’s implosion is that there were a lot of players wanting to play rugby on Saturday but not being given the licence or coaching to do it, with some of the senior players just as culpable for thinking too restrictively. Some want results, some want to perform and get better. As a result, England looked stuck in the middle of strategies and different directions on Saturday; the coaching staff’s job is to harmonise all of that, quickly.

The censured sensors

There’ve been plenty of debates about the perceived softness and molly-coddling of the pro generation of players from fights and fouls down the years, and it would appear that the mouthguard sensors that flag up heavy impacts which could cause concussion are stimulating a fresh round.

From Scotland to New Zealand, the weekend past saw bemused players exiting for head injury assessments after their sensors registered heavy impacts, while some coaches, team-mates and onloookers alike all thought that it was all a little overkill.

But is it? At a time when the global governing body is facing an existential lawsuit because head injuries have not been dealt with properly, with one of New Zealand’s favourite and most impressive playing servants currently fighting a never-ending battle with early onset dementia, it is ridiculous to imagine that any stone will be unturned in the quest to better understand how head injury problems build and accumulate.

Lest we forget: it is not at the time that such impacts have their worst effect, but 20 years later. The more we can measure and assess now, the better the understanding of risks for the future will be. Mouthguard sensors are a crucial part of that development, which is one the game may well need to survive.

READ MORE: Six Nations law discussion: Should France’s try against Italy have stood?