Loose Pass: Reflecting on an eventful past 12 months as we now buckle up for the Rugby World Cup year to come

Lawrence Nolan
Steve Borthwick, World Cup and Warren Gatland

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with reflection and anticipation…

An avalanche of family descending on Loose Pass’ home this week made observation of actual rugby somewhat tricky. But it is probably ok, after all, this has been a year with enough storyline to fill several columns when looking back.

Who would have thought, for example, that England would be under new leadership ahead of the World Cup? Even after another disappointing Six Nations at the end of March, who would have thought that?

It remains a source of permanent incredulity for Loose Pass of the Rugby Football Union’s competence that they either waited so long, or, having done so, could not reflect on the very obvious reality of what Eddie Jones frequently noted: that the one time he had all his players together for a sustained period of preparation time he was able to navigate all manner of obstacles and reach the World Cup final?

Awkward task for Steve Borthwick

Steve Borthwick has been handed an awkward task which could have been significantly less so had the RFU not procrastinated/mistrusted/knee-jerked itself into delivering the axe to Jones at what we reckon is precisely the wrong moment. Hopefully he will prevail, as he is a fine chap and an excellent coach.

As for Jones, it would be a fitting ending to his story were he to be able, for example, to take on an advisory role to Dave Rennie and help propel Australia to glory, either against England or South Africa, who were universally-acclaimed in 2019 but whose coach’s childish social media interactions this year have done serious damage to the Springbok brand.

Who would have thought the same fate would befall Wayne Pivac too – who would have thought that Warren Gatland would leave New Zealand and return to Wales, for that matter? Pivac took the Welsh job on at a time when the difficulties in the principality were much less apparent than they are now; generation Gatland II is now gone and there is precious little young talent coming through, even less resource with which to nurture it. Gatland is adept at getting a lot out of very little; it is perhaps precisely this, not one of Pivac’s many strengths, which led the WRU to also chop and change at a remarkably tricky moment.

It was also a year we found a format patently capable of revitalising the European Cup, with the month of April marked by some epic two-legged ties. The Montpellier-Harlequins and Sale-Bristol clashes were unforgettable. Yet the organisers couldn’t even find a way to deliver us any more of that: instead we have an absolute hash of a pool round where nobody quite understands who is playing where and why, where genuine peril is in short supply, with weakened teams all over the place and the likelihood of at least one team winning only one out of four matches and still finding themselves in the round of 16.

In fact, by some distance the most perfect tournament seemed to be the Women’s World Cup, epically won by New Zealand in a finale which could quite easily be in the top one for Match of the Year. A simple format, maximum competitive integrity, which delivered. Is it really beyond EPRC to organise this?

State of club rugby in England

Yet all those challenges pale into insignificance when it comes to events at club level in England. When not one, but two of England’s premier clubs cease to exist despite the seam-bursting proliferation of games in the calendar, when Wales can no longer afford to offer new contracts to national players and is considering cutting the number of its regions from four to three, there is clearly something wrong with the general operating model.

But if 2022 was more of a challenge than a triumph, 2023 promises triumphs aplenty. The disfiguring investigations and convictions of top officials notwithstanding, the 2023 World Cup promises to be rich in French pizzazz off the field, and rich in competition on it. There are two pools from which four teams could realistically qualify, as well as the admission of a new member of the World Cup membership pool.

If rugby in North America seems to have stuttered for now, in South America there is a rich vein of emerging talent from other countries to Argentina. In Europe too, the improvements in Portugal and Spain, not to mention Georgia and Italy, are promising for the game’s longer-term expansion and future – more promising and more stable-looking than ever before.

Despite many a moan about TMO stoppages and a plethora of debates about protocols, there does seem to be improved consistency in officiating and the administration of head contact. Whether that actually has an effect on lightening the shadow of long-term brain damage because of collisions is still very much up for debate, but clarity as a starting point looks to be within reach. And if the game itself seems more stop-start at times, the accuracy and quality of the moments of action has sometimes been better than ever before.

2023 offers a wealth of opportunities. There will, we hope, be a decision made on a long-term global fixture calendar. We have to hope that our administrators understand that we are now clearly at the point where the athletes are knackered, where resource is frequently being wasted on fanciful notions, where television coverage is saturated and where the vanilla marketing gloss has covered up the essence of the game too much.

Meaningless matches do not appeal

More money may come, but there are few of us who would want that at the expense of full stadia, such has seemed to be the trend. Endless seasons with meaningless matches do not appeal, conflicts between national teams and club teams even less so, and impervious competition formats least of all. A good decision for a well-integrated, clearly-tiered global calendar would be a landmark moment; it may well be the most important decision the game’s administration will have made since deciding to pay players openly back in 1995. It must not go wrong.

We also have a clear opportunity to capitalise on the other game’s mistakes in choosing dodgy World Cup hosts, a chance to have one of the world’s greatest-ever sporting events. The waters there have already been muddied by the office scandals, but that may mean little if the hosts deliver as we know they can.

Before then, a myriad of other stories. How will the new coaches fare in the Six Nations? How will South African teams fare in the European (?) Cup? Are New Zealand and Australia really done? Is England’s top flight going to be shaken up further? Will Wales survive their financial crisis? Will rugby get itself through its challenges as the professional game nears its 30th year?

Buckle up, boys and girls, 2023 will be quite a ride.

READ MORE: Two Cents Rugby: Seven players who are primed for a great 2023 including a returning All Blacks loose forward