Loose Pass: Munster and Saracens are back, TMO controversy and Owen Farrell’s form

Lawrence Nolan
Loose Pass

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with comebacks, TMO controversy and a fly-half’s renaissance…

Munster is back!

Where were Munster a year ago? Where were Saracens three years ago? If last Saturday was one of repeat performance from La Rochelle, this Saturday just past was the day of the phoenix teams.

A glance down the Loose Pass annals reveals several paragraphs written not 16 months ago lamenting the (comparative) fall from grace of the Munstermen, pointing at the infighting among the alumni and disenchantment with the then-coach Johann van Graan, and wondering where it might all end up.

It ended up on Saturday with Munster having nicked the crown that Leinster could not, having faced a brutal schedule of travel to South Africa and back over the past two months. Leading Irish rugby correspondent Murray Kinsella summarised it thus: “An utterly different side to a year ago. Huge.”

It will be interesting to see if this past couple of months, especially considering the way they have managed the constant tour scenario and seemingly lapped up the experience, will culminate in a couple of young bolters in Ireland’s World Cup squad. Jack Crowley is definitely a contender, as is Shane Daly and Diarmuid Barron.

But there’s much of the credit that belongs to the coaching staff, who have faced adverse challenge after adverse challenge and come up trumps with a mentally indomitable group of players, which remains the only side to have beaten the Stormers in Cape Town over the past couple of years. Twice.

And remembering the thought a fortnight ago that Leinster’s emphasis on rotation over the past couple of months may have cost them at the business end, it was a soundbite from the coach that perhaps proved the most pertinent: “I keep saying we’re battle-hardened, we’ve not been able to rotate the squad massively and it’s made us fit, match hardened,” said Graham Rowntree. “Just the manner of which we’ve done it, away from home, doing it tough, a tight group, not rotating the squad a lot. I’m immensely proud.”

Saracens is back!

The challenge of coming back for Saracens was not of a team that needed a refit or a culture change, it was of a team that could have been completely wiped from the map had the fallout from the salary cap breaches gone in a different direction. Players could have left, owners could have chucked it in. Anything could have gone wrong.

Many, including your correspondent, still think that the championships they won when breaching the cap are tainted, and should be stripped and awarded to the runners-up of the corresponding years. But not this one. This one was as clean as it was rarely in question.

Saracens stuck together. Some players went on loan, but most stayed and played fair game in the Championship, working their way back up to the top, improving their rugby. Not just the Owen Farrells either, but the stalwarts of the side, the Jackson Wrays, the Duncan Taylors.

Many had made the point of how the players had stuck through it all, but Wray had a further point to make regarding how the ownership and management of the club had also seen this through: “I don’t think people talk about this enough. It was the biggest fine in sporting history in a game where you lose money every year. And we have got through it,” he said.

“That says a lot more about the owners, to be honest. They said: ‘We made a mistake and we will stay and put it right.’ Together we have done it.” It’s a laudable achievement.

This time, in defence of the TMO

A lot of gnashing of teeth has resulted from the TMO’s decision to award Ivan van Zyl’s – ultimately killer – try in the 71st minute. The argument being there was no conclusive evidence the ball had touched the ground and that Luke Pearce had ruled it held up.

But what was inconclusive? He was held up when he went to ground for sure, but as the weight of Van Zyl’s tackler rolled onto him, the ball also edged forward and tipped over the forearm that had been under it. From the mouse’s-eye angle, the point of the ball then disappeared behind the level of the grass, meaning it had either touched said grass or that there was a ball-sized sinkhole which had opened up and that the ball had moved into this without touching the grass around the sinkhole’s edge.

We made the same point – albeit with a different outcome – talking about James Lowe’s toecap when he scored a try against France: if the crucial body part/ball tip is obscured from view by the blades of grass, then it is touching it.

Which is all the ball has to do for a try to be awarded. A good TMO call on this occasion.

Owen Farrell’s Indian Summer

Several years ago, when Farrell was often-touted, even once short-listed, for being a potential world player of the year, there was a moment in a Six Nations match when the playmaker had three supporting runners wide and only two defenders in front of him.

He made the right decision, but his pass was an uncatchable bullet-hard high ball, which eluded the would-be scorer’s mitts and blundered into touch. It was not the only time Farrell’s passing has been off in such situations. And the legend of his tackling technique remains a popular rod with which to beat him.

But he has probably enjoyed his best campaign this season. The ability to manipulate defences AND provide accurate passes to take advantage has improved beyond measure. He tackles low. He was intelligent enough to read Manu Tuilagi’s unprotected ball-carrying arm and perform a pressure-relieving ball-strip when others might have gone into contact and risked a card-worthy collision. All while his kicking game remains as on-point as ever.

England face a tough Rugby World Cup with a squad which, on form, is not a contender. But in Farrell on current form they do now have a more potent weapon at fly-half than they have had in a while.

READ MORE: URC final: Five takeaways from Stormers v Munster as road trip ends in glory