Loose Pass: Off-seasons, hounding and obstructive referees

Date published: June 26 2018

This week we will be mostly concerning ourselves with the European off-season (or lack thereof), the hounding of Eddie Jones and obstructive referees.

Give it a rest

By our reckoning, the European rugby season ended at approximately 21:25 GMT on Saturday night. It was referee Mathieu Raynal who drew the curtain down, blowing for no-time in Resistencia after Scotland had made an utter mockery of the Argentine city’s name.

On Monday morning – that’s yesterday morning – pre-season training was under way at most clubs across England and France. Those sides that played no part in the league play-offs have actually been hitting the bags since mid-June.

James Haskell, who was spared England’s tour of South Africa, has just begun his first week at Northampton Saints having successfully completed his first mandatory five-week break in five years. How ‘mandatory’ has come to mean ‘not-really-completely-that-mandatory’ is a much larger story for another time, so let’s just focus on the fact that The Hask found that his fellow Saints had already been on the job for a full two weeks.

Of course, those just back from national duty will now take a break and join pre-season at a later date, but don’t believe for one moment that they’d be spared from anything bar full contact. Emails, playbooks, schedules, fitness plans and video analysis are already choking up their inboxes. And all this is tandem with the nagging knowledge that their early-bird understudies will be getting the jump on them. The likes of Owen Farrell and Morgan Parra might sit on the beach for a couple of days, but they’ll soon be pounding up the dunes for fear of falling behind.

As anyone who has ever held any sort of job knows, success depends on a decent balance between work and rest of body and mind. Moreover, this downtime must be regular and complete. Why is it, then, that French and English players are consistently denied these basic rights?

Yes, yes. We sound like a broken record – or whatever the modern equivalent is (a retweet?) – but if we had one wish for the new season it would be to see the best players at their best.

It’s not a big ask, but it won’t happen. This season will roll directly into the Rugby World Cup, and there’s been no indication that the clubs and unions of England and France are willing to forgo a single pound of flesh ahead of festivities in the Far East.

The reasoning behind all this continues to elude us. Is it simply greed? For you’d have to be a top-tier fool to marvel at the success of New Zealand and Ireland – ranked one and two in the world, respectively – and not consider whether astute player-management has some part to play.

Take France in New Zealand. They gained a foothold (of sorts) in all three Tests before succumbing to sheer exhaustion – and some horrible luck (of which more later). After another marathon season, they were running on empty.

But then take the wonderful Wesley Fofana. From whence did he draw all that energy? How was he able to make the All Blacks look almost human in Dunedin? Exceptions generally prove rules, and you can’t help but conclude that all those injuries and all those lay-offs have rejuvenated him. He looked fresh. He looked rested.

And now take Maro Itoje: a stallion in acute danger of ending up a carthorse. Again, you can’t help but think that a well-timed injury would aid his development – and England’s chances in Japan.

How have we got ourselves in a position of wishing injury upon anyone? What kind of perversion has taken a grip of our game that has allowed us to even think this way?

Well, it’s the old club versus country thing, of course. But no one has the guts to address it. Even the media has chosen to ignore the fundamental flaws, choosing instead the much easier target of Eddie Jones.

Loose Pass regulars will know we’ve had our misgivings about Eddie, but we find it grossly unfair that he’s copping all the flak for England’s recent decent into mediocrity. It’s his superiors we should be after, but it looks like they will once again go unpunished for their continued inability to forge even a smidgen of symbiosis with the clubs.

That’s the story that needs chasing. Sadly (British media being what it is), that story is not as simple or as sexy or as fun as watching – and making – a cocksure Aussie squirm.

It’s high time we all grew up.

Video nasties

We’ve been treated to some pretty special Test rugby over the course of the month. Sadly, some of the officiating hasn’t been of the same calibre.

We’re always reluctant to call out referees and their assistants. This is because rugby is a notoriously hard game to officiate. What’s more, refs are only human and they generally make far fewer mistakes per game than any of the 30 men that they govern.

Our bugbear is that too many simple mistakes are being made – and by simple we don’t mean those that happen in a blink of an eye. Those will always be tricky. We’re taking about those mistakes that occur during breaks in play, after videos have been reviewed and learned colleagues petitions for feedback and advice. How are these types of decision botched so regularly?

The biggest botch of the month was undoubtedly the review of the double-tackle that left France wing Remy Grosso with a fractured skull. Totally kosher, apparently, and that was the call after various video angles.

But that was only one of a number of glaring TMO head-scratchers, and it was bitterly fitting that the final one also befall France.

You would have seen it already: the sight of Damian McKenzie skirting in under the sticks after Baptiste Serin’s path to a tackle is blocked by referee John Lacey. The Irishman calls it up on the big screen and sees no harm and no foul. The try stands. French heads go down. It’s over bar the shouting.

Now advanced students of the game have pointed out that Lacey was, in a sense, quite correct to award the try. It turns out there’s no mention of referees in the laws pertaining to off-the-ball obstruction. To the letter of the law, a referee can only obstruct a ball-carrier, not a would-be tackler.

This is clearly absurd. Luckily, the laws are cleverer than all of us. Much more elastic, too. The good book makes allowances for “stoppage or irregularity not covered by Law”. In these incidences, the correct call is a scrum to the team that was moving forward (or on attack) before the stoppage.

We weren’t expecting Lacey to be able to regurgitate this level of nuance on the fly – particularly given that he would been shaken by getting rather too involved in the action. But surely, at this level of the game, someone within his officiating team should have been able to fill him in. After over 20 years of professionalism, is that really too much to ask?

Loose Pass is compiled by former Planet Rugby editor Andy Jackson