Loose Pass: High ball contests, head hits, man of the match, commercials and captaincy
This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with high ball contests, head hits, man of the match, commercials and captaincy…
On a weekend where red cards seemed set to dominate the narrative after Sunday’s events in Paris, it was at least refreshing to see the decisions made all turn out to be spot on.
We’ll talk about Paris in a moment, but Sunday’s curtain-raiser to the France v Scotland Six Nations game was the excellent encounter between Sale and Exeter, in which Luke Pearce once again demonstrated why he is, in our view, one of the best in the business – if not the best.
A tight game looked to have been clinched by Exeter with around five minutes of the game left when Olly Woodburn scrambled into the corner. But Sale cried foul: they’d seen a player taken out in the air two phases before.
And the replays showed: yes, there had been a collision, and at first glance, it did seem as though the Exeter player had barely jumped, never mind been in a position to catch. But Mr. Pearce saw the all-important aspect: namely that although the Exeter player had not jumped, he had in fact got to the ball and played it, that it was the Exeter player had knocked the ball back despite the airborne Sale player flying high above – and keeling over mid-air as a result of the contact.
Common sense did prevail: “If he’s been able to play the ball then he has to have been in a position to catch it hasn’t he,” was the stance taken by Mr. Pearce. And so, refreshingly, the game continued. But how often have these calls been wrong over the past couple of years?
Getting it right in Paris
“Anybody else think this is the most bizarre game of rugby this season?” ran one contribution to Loose Pass’ WhatsApp chat after a quarter of Sunday’s France-Scotland clash. There was widespread agreement: two red cards, three tries for one team against the other which was clearly looking more cohesive and 20 minutes of rugby which had taken nearly 30.
So perhaps forgive Nika Amashukeli for being a little bewildered at moments during that opening quarter. Having watched at least six replays of Scotland’s number five dropping his shoulder – reflexively, not aggressively it must be added – into Anthony Jelonch’s chops, it seemed he was the only one in the stadium not to know which number player to call to face the music.
It also took a very, very long time for the process to begin at all. The French physio might have been considering an HIA, Jelonch clearly did not want to bother and he had probably won the physio over to his point of view before the referee called him up on it. Only then did we see the replay which showed exactly why the HIA was needed – and why Grant Gilchrist was in trouble.
Less forgiveable was the clemency Mr. Amashukeli might have shown Mohamed Haouas had it not been for the intervention of one of his assistants. “I’m not seeing a high level of danger,” he said, as another replay clearly showed Haouas flying like Superman onto the noggin of Ben White. If White had been in a Tom and Jerry cartoon he’d have turned accordion-shaped.
Perhaps he simply didn’t want to give another card, in a contest which was about to get its second red yet in which the teams seemed almost to like each other. Anyway, the right call was eventually made and as many opined in the immediate aftermath, Haouas’ Test career might well be now lost to his own idiocy forever.
Anyway, the point of both these first two sections is to remind all that we’ll commend the refs who call it right as well as when the calls are wrong – even if they take their time over it.
Not to do Mack Hansen’s display down, he was excellent, but exactly who chooses Man of the Match sometimes? It is not just about scoring: Bundee Aki and Jack Conan, to name but two from the winning side, had all-round performances which contributed to every facet of their team’s victory as well as just finishing off moves. And we’ve not yet touched upon how good Stephen Varney was, nor Lorenzo Cannone.
Wales’ standing count (and England’s)
The absolute last match Wales need to face right now is to face a passionate crowd and resurgent, skilful Italy in Rome. As a neighbour in Cardiff remarked to me – after a five-minute lament on how subdued the atmosphere was – “it’s easier to see them losing at the moment than winning.”
After watching a re-run of Italy’s breathless assault on the world’s number one team, it’s hard to find fault with the reasoning.
🏴 @EnglandRugby's first win at the Principality Stadium since 2017.
Sum up that match in three words.#WALvENG | #GuinnessSixNations pic.twitter.com/sVmYJxWFMf
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 25, 2023
Yet Wales were not the only team looking off-colour in Cardiff. England won well enough, but it was a game in which neither side seemed able to string much together, nor bring any facet of it consistently to elite international level. Compared to the other two matches of the weekend, it was difficult to escape the notion that, despite what the actual table says, the match in Cardiff was between the fifth and sixth-best teams in the tournament. Difficult World Cup campaigns beckon for both.
Money makes the World go round
If the WRU is short of a few pennies, it might do well to ask the FFR for a few tips on how to squeeze a bit of extra coin out of some sponsors.
We’re 60 seconds before kick-off, the players all in readiness, referee checking if the two teams are ready. And then…
Cue touchline camera, and a close-up of the match ball on a miniature remote-controlled and fully-branded car ready to deliver its cargo to the anxious players.
As the car rockets onto the pitch (what acceleration, and an e-motor too!) we get another close-up, this one of the match ball which has been popped upon the car’s carrying zone at just the right angle to ensure that the ball sponsor has full exposure to the camera at just the moment that millions of excited and high-arousal viewers have been building up to.
Stealth adverts out of the way, we can get on with the rugby. Is this really what the game has come to?
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