Loose Pass: Player release regulations, Europe’s second tier and advance thoughts on the Six Nations

Lawrence Nolan
Loose Pass image January 30 2024.jpg

Wales head coach Warren Gatland and Scotland boss Gregor Townsend, the Six Nations trophy and Georgia's Davit Niniashvili.

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with player release regulations, Europe’s second tier and advance thoughts on the Six Nations…

This needs better management

One of this website’s sub-headings last week, on the Premiership team sheets page, ran so: “Scotland and Wales hold their breath as Six Nations stars feature in the Premiership.”

Thanks to the perceptive among you who noticed that there was not much explanation or expansion on that, but then how much is really needed there? The captains of both countries were involved in full-blooded clashes at the weekend.

It seems faintly ridiculous that Gregor Townsend and Warren Gatland both need to fret over players being available or not because of injury, not to mention having a handful of key players missing out on several sessions of prep time for the forthcoming showpiece, simply because they play in another country.

It’s especially ridiculous when you consider that said country’s national union is currently engaged in an acrimonious funding row with it second tier while it continues efforts to fund its national team ever-more lavishly, including the new hybrid contracts to ease the burden on its clubs.

Meanwhile, the other national unions can’t afford the salaries necessary to keep the top talents, who have to look to the Premiership or Top 14 to maximise their earning potential from the career that is permanently only one catastrophic injury away from being curtailed. But when said talents are taken away from national team duty to play for English clubs while the English talents are all paid up and given – relatively – a week off seems just plain wrong. It carries an unpleasant taste of financial bullying.

This is not the fault of the RFU, however, nor the clubs, nor the players. This is not an actual accusation of financial bullying as the motive for this. More a lament that nations, players and others continue to suffer from an over-crowded fixture schedule, a poorly-conceived calendar and irregular player release regulations. Wouldn’t it be great to have a level playing field and clear and even player management just one time?

Europe’s new design

As if by example, not for nothing have we cast a glance at the Rugby Europe Championship this week, which kicks off and runs almost parallel to the Six Nations, thus ensuring fewer of those pesky player release problems and more of players like Davit Niniashvili and Raffaele Storti actually playing for their countries.

On the back of the World Cup displays from Georgia and Portugal as well, it is now probably legitimate to call this the Six Nations second division. Those two are favourites to take the whole thing but the last weekend of pool fixtures, featuring Georgia v Spain (who would have been at the World Cup had they not played a South African replacement prop for about 20 minutes in two matches against Holland) and the coming together of the two teams who benefitted from Spain’s exclusion, Romania and World Cup darlings Portugal, could conjure up a couple of surprises.

Either way, the new format, which splits the eight teams into two pools of four, each team in each pool playing each other once and then a semi-finals weekend before a four-match finals day in Paris that promises to reward only those with significant stamina, is a win in our book.

Oh, and finals day is the day after the Six Nations finale. A perfect day of rugby to sit in front of while Super Saturday seeps out of the system…

Rugby’s staple

Pandemics came and went. World Cups too. Clubs have gone extinct. Leagues have changed beyond all recognition. South Africa is in Europe. Super Rugby was in Asia, then it wasn’t again, but it is in the Pacific Islands now.

Rugby feels like it has spent the past few years in a near-total state of flux, with ne’er a season going past when some unforeseen change, be it in finance, sponsorship, structure or simple numbers, didn’t make a rethink of a competition necessary.

But the Six Nations never changes (well not since 2000 anyway). Six teams, five weekends, no finals. Just win the lot. You might hear moans from time to time about the hegemony of the unions in the tournament in the global game, but then there’s no annual tournament in the game that gets the emotions going like this one.

The one after the World Cup almost always finds something unexpected. Pandemic year excepted (and since five became six), it has always ended in a Grand Slam, for example, and not always from expected sources either. France toppled world champions England in 2004. Who would have bet on Wales in 2008, months after they’d been knocked out of the World Cup by Fiji? Or England in 2016, months after being knocked out of their own World Cup by Wales?

There are so many questions this time, so many discontinued storylines, so many imponderables. From Loose Pass’ point of view, here are perhaps the most pressing questions for each team to answer…

England: Who will Steve Borthwick start at 10? Marcus Smith is the popular choice, but Fin Smith’s coolness under heavy pressure at Munster last week and his general role in Northampton’s rise to prominence means the choice is not as straightforward as it was a few months ago…

Ireland: Just how does the succession planning look? There are a lot of thirty-somethings in this squad – three out of four centres, two out of three scrum-halves, three out of five back-rows… it would astound if most of these made it to the next World Cup. Continuity is important, and perhaps this generation has been given a shot at righting the World Cup wrongs by nailing a Grand Slam, but there has to come a point when Ireland moves on.

Wales: Can Gatland weave his magic again? Wales have lost hundreds of caps’ of experience over the past twelve months and the squad, led by a 21-year-old, is clearly built for the future, with most outside Wales having little idea who half the team is. Building teams of clear purpose and united identity from very little raw material is the business niche which Gatland leads, but the rawness of this year’s ingredients will test his patience.

France: Does everything revolve around Antoine Dupont? France has a remarkable collection of scrum-halves at the moment: leading the pack is Maxime Lucu but he is also one for the now rather than for Australia 2027. If the goal-kicking and irrepressible Nolann Le Garrec is given a shot, Dupont’s absence might be less keenly felt than people expect.

Scotland: Can this most settled of teams sneak a first tournament win? The last winners of the Five Nations have been down a rocky road in the professional era, but they’ve a steady coach, fine bunch of core players, a world-class fly-half and growing confidence. They’ve England and France at Murrayfield too, before a final weekend clash against the Irish, whom Scotland would love, simply love, to beat after last year’s World Cup clash between the two saw the Scots eliminated.

Italy: The only team with a new coach, but with a growing nucleus of young and talented players, can they win another game? One solitary win in 40 Six Nations matches is the current statistic, that win in Cardiff two years ago. The World Cup was anti-climactic and there remains a number of people who would happily see the current administration ousted, but the team is, on paper, talented, young and eager to build again. They’re back in Cardiff again on the last weekend, while England could be caught cold in the opener…

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