Loose Pass: Brad Shields, fast starts and new beginnings

Date published: April 24 2018

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with nationalities, historical precedent, half-time scores and a couple of new beginnings…

For club or country or province or the other country or…

It took three days, but it looks increasingly likely to drag on. The timeline is pretty simple: On April 18 Eddie Jones was apparently given carte blanche to pick the Hurricanes’ back-row bruiser Brad Shields.

On April 19, the NZRU said Shields wasn’t available because of a ‘Schedule Three’ (what?) clause in his contract which means he is only obliged to play for New Zealand teams during his contract term (including, obviously, the All Blacks).

On April 20 therefore, Shields went up to the NZRU and asked for release from the ominously-named Schedule Three, in order to play for England. The NZRU is now considering the request – which presumably could end up with Shields turfed out of the Hurricanes as well if it is accepted. So now we wait.

In fairness, the NZRU has handled the affair reasonably well. Steve Tew’s stance softened quickly when Shields did ask for special dispensation, whereas before Tew had been responding to press reports and rumour. Once Shields himself made his intentions clear, it’ll probably be sorted out reasonably well – if not that quickly.

But once again, the follies of the lack of a coherent global calendar, the weird intrusions of the Test windows/tournaments into seasons, the even weirder sandwiching of some Test series by international tournaments, the backing up of those windows/tournaments by the ubiquitous Regulation Nine (stipulating all players must be released for Test matches within windows without exception) and the insistences on who controls what are all quickly wrapped up into one dicey package.

In this case at least, the matter is likely to be resolved by the player asking permission to do what he would very much like to do please, and be well-managed while he does it. But until all the follies above are somehow co-ordinated, what the players want – or need – will remain very much the last thing said in such debates – and may also end up being the last thing considered.

French sprinters or Ireland’s endurers?

There’ll be many who wanted the Leinster-Munster final, but just as many will find it hard to deny that Racing simply mesmerized Munster in the opening half-hour of the Bordeaux semi-final on Sunday.

For the neutral, the forthcoming Final might actually be more fun, however, just on the basis of how the game could go.

French teams have had a habit, down the years and in Europe at least, of being extremely good at notching up a lead and starting fast, then relying on dogged defence. Indeed, when Saracens destroyed Clermont in the 2014 Heineken Cup, one of the statistical bits of info dredged up by the Sarries’ analysis team was that Clermont had conceded only six points in seven prior first quarters, that much of the Clermont strategy was based around a fast start, building a lead, then sitting back and absorbing pressure and preying on mistakes. But only Clermont?

Here’s Racing’s scorecard for first quarters during this season’s tournament:

V Munster – 14-3

V Clermont – 0-9

V Leicester – 14-3

V Munster – 10-0

V Castres – 14-0

V Castres – 3-0

V Munster – 0-0

V Leicester – 7-7 (which was 19-10 eight minutes later)

With the obvious exception of the Clermont match, the only games Racing have failed in are the ones in which they were not able to get an early score or two, and that only Leicester have managed an early try against the Parisians in the opening quarter this season. Indeed, the only team to have blitzed Racing are the team Saracens prepared so carefully for four years ago.

The key to a Leinster victory? Probably not, but given Leinster’s possession-heavy style of play, if Racing do manage their habitual blitz start and then sit back, the second half will be a thunderstorm of a game.

Plus ca change…

Meanwhile, in Super Rugby, more teams from New Zealand have positive win records than from all the other countries put together, despite their playing and beating each other on a near-weekly basis. New Zealand teams occupy four of the top five places in the table and, if you take the Blues out of the equation, the only New Zealand team to have lost to a non-New Zealand team is the Hurricanes, their 21-19 defeat to the Bulls on the opening day fast becoming a very distant memory.

Wasn’t the move to conferences supposed to even up a flawed competitive field or something?

New horizons over here…

Loose Pass alluded to a new-look Premiership in England a couple of weeks ago, featuring four of the teams currently with the right ambitions and at the right end of the Championship.

As one who once took the long bus down from a home county to Cornwall for a match, and then also played the return at which the number of passionate Cornish fans vastly outnumbered the locals, I welcomed the report this week that the Cornish Pirates look likely to get their new swanky facility in Truro, the requisite three million more quid notwithstanding.

England’s west country has long been – not without good reason – one of rugby’s most fevered heartlands, but until the emergence of Exeter, it was sad that in the top flight, the M5 motorway took you nowhere.

Hopefully Cornwall can get it together, can you imagine the fire we might have in three years’ time when Exeter faces Pirates in a Devon v Cornwall derby!

Or over there…

They’re off again! The second incarnation of professional rugby in the USA kicked off on Saturday. Hopefully it lasts a little longer than the last one, which managed a paltry season before infighting with the union (heard that one before?) saw it fizzle out.

Major League Rugby has begun more promisingly. It features more teams (with more set to join next season) and a better geographical spread. Not one team failed to score fewer than 20 points and all games were to be found on some form of cable broadcast somewhere – the game of the week made it onto the CBS sports network.

The USA remains a sleeping giant of the game, but have they finally found the incarnation of a professional, pan-nation league that could wake it up properly?

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens