Loose Pass: Leinster and Jacques Nienaber make ‘childish mockery’ of World Rugby laws

Lawrence Nolan
Loose Pass slams Jacques Nienaber and Leinster for the waterboy move.

Loose Pass slams Jacques Nienaber and Leinster for the waterboy move.

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with growing international selection conundrums, the ridiculous waterboy loophole and the memories of a European classic…

Who’s playing where, when and for whom?

As the seasons develop financially, expand, shift borders and competitions chop, change and re-bear, it seems logical to consider that teams are going to be both confused and confounded by the increasingly odd wrangle of eligibility regulations and funding criteria.

But rarely can the picture have seemed so convoluted as it does at the moment, or have felt so fragile as it has over the past few months.

Consider New Zealand. There have been two requests from Super Rugby teams this season to get veteran All Blacks back into folds for Super Rugby play-offs. That the requests were refused – one on the basis of World Rugby regulations and the other because of a simple desire for a contract to be honoured – makes a lot of sense; that the teams even considered it might be feasible mildly beggars belief but also confirms a suspicion that because of the differing time zones, season spans, hemispheres and such, teams are going to try it on.

It also confirms the suspicion that all is not totally well with what has been, for the past 20 years, a prolific and conveyor-belt of world-class talent in New Zealand. Recent political divisions between the national union, the players’ union and the provinces have been deeper than for some time, and while there are plenty of good young players about, the generational change that Scott Robertson must oversee is fraught with uncertainty. The constant undertone of calls for the old guard to return and guide teams through the late season is too omnipresent for anybody to believe that the youngsters, or even Robertson, are being fully trusted to oversee that change on their own.

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Sabbaticals in Japan were meant as a – relative – year off for late-career All Blacks to freshen up, earn some decent green and return to New Zealand for the following season, as an alternative to heading to Europe for a payday too early in the career. But with New Zealand teams – and even potentially Robertson himself – looking to get players back at short notice, that system also looks to be bending.

Then consider England. Jack Willis must be, by some distance, England’s best openside flanker at the moment, yet he is in France and is extremely unlikely to return, meaning he is equally as unlikely to play for England because he cannot be considered because he is based abroad.

Chances are high he is better paid in Toulouse than he might be able to get under the salary cap, even if he were to be proffered the carrot of a dual contract. But his soundbites in the wake of the European Cup triumph made it sound more than just financial. Granted, winning stuff tints the spectacles all rosy, but Willis just seemed simply happy; he has done every time someone has asked him about his chances of playing for England, not just in the wake of a European triumph.

It contrasts sharply with the soundbites of many who might be in line for dual contracts, or of those who are anything but certain of their England spot. Henry Arundell consistently gives a similar impression.

For how long can the RFU resist the temptation to open the doors to a player exit – such as Wales have been forced to do (do we need to go there?) – and not least when the number of functioning professional clubs still looks shaky?

And recently you’d have to consider Ireland, where one team is functioning just fine but, due to a large number of reasons, not all of them directly to do with rugby, it seems to be functioning just fine at the expense of the others. No problem with exits there so far, but if the resources currently concentrated at Leinster were to be evenly distributed among Irish provinces, would any of these teams be as competitive as Leinster currently are? There are arguments on both sides there and they are starting to get louder; they will get much, much louder if Ireland’s national team starts to falter.

We’re edging towards a global international season, with the onset of the global club/province/franchise competition creating the first steps towards harmony on that level too. But among nations, protectionism and confounding regulations are thwarting players’ ambitions while some nations are cutting off noses to spite faces, creating a hotch-potch of selection and eligibility dynamics that are confusing to all.

But here’s a bottom line: if you were a player, wouldn’t you crave the simplicity of Willis’ current circumstance?

Keep the coaches off

Coaches acting as waterboys was perhaps amusing briefly, it became irritating when brazenly exploited by Rassie Erasmus, it’s boring and frustrating in equal measure now.

That Jacques Nienaber was allowed to carry water because his official title is ‘senior coach’ makes a childish mockery of the rule that World Rugby updated in 2022. It’s simple disrespect and he and Leinster ought to be censured for it.

Meanwhile, the rule could quite easily be updated to force teams to name water-carriers before a game, perhaps a maximum of two or three (how much water do they all need anyway?) and none of them among the coaching staff named at the start of a season.

Games are supposed to be a test of how well players can play, given both the instructions they are given and their own ability to react to the situations that unfold, not to be a platform for control freaks to issue instructions at every turn. It would be great if we could regulate this better and censure those who seek to go against the spirit of the law by dint of nit-picking legal chicanery.

The Grand Finale

When the smoke cleared, there was still breathlessness. Never has a final set the pulse racing for Loose Pass as much as Saturday’s did – as a neutral observer anyway. It was rugby at its rawest, with the handling errors under the defensive pressure adding to the spectacle rather than detracting.

The match officials were magnificent, with special praise reserved for the TMO who looked at three angles frame-by-frame to conclusively decide that the Leinster try would stand, rather than just being swayed by the conflicting evidences.

It was also a reminder that tries are not an exclusive currency for thrills. The verdict on the game’s quality and spectacle is close to unanimous, yet to remind of the stat that the first try came in extra-time still causes surprised reflection.

If we can have tournaments where the knockout rounds are populated by games such as Harlequins’ triumph in Bordeaux and culminating in finales such as these, we have to be in a good place as a sport don’t we?

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