Talking points: Five things we learned in December
The loose morals of the Top 14, Pascal Pape's play-acting, the new high-tackle laws and a three-way relegation scrap are all put under the spotlight
Goosen – Top 14 reaping what it’s sown
December saw Johann Goosen retire from rugby in what some see as a Machiavellian attempt to ditch his current contract, exploit French employment law, and then return to another club on an improved deal. It is a move that led Mourad Boudjellal to declare that any Top 14 President who offers Goosen a new contract is a ‘bastard’. The South African’s actions go beyond cut-throat and stab deep into the heart of professional rugby, but are arguably a result of the league’s overall attitude and environment. A brash league where money is everything and no object. A league where the club owners say whatever they want whenever they want.
Where club chiefs openly criticise their players and coaches without even a flash of remorse. A league who plunder the world’s rugby resources without a care in the world. A league where test rugby is treated as inferior to the overly cash reliant club game. A league which resents releasing players during the agreed test window and openly threatens to financially punish players for having the temerity to play test rugby at all. Goosen’s actions, if they pan out as suggested, are wrong, but if the Top 14 chooses to live by the financial and legal sword, then it must learn to die by it.
Nigel Owens is good for rugby
The New Year’s Day fixture between the Scarlets and Cardiff Blues saw Nigel Owens deliver another of his classic ‘one liners’. With six front row substitutions made and the respective players refusing to set properly at the scrum, Owens light heartedly said ‘Is this why you’re not starting the game?’ A comment which was met by laughter on the field, yet some derision on social media. As with Victorian children, some supporters would rather their referees were seen and not heard.
Just a set of lungs and legs that move around the field stopping only briefly to make a noise through a whistle. But it isn’t a whistle that controls the game, it is a referee’s personality. As with the great Clive Norling, the whistle is a mere prop – it is their ability to bond with the players and force their personality on the game that matters. Owen’s one liners aren’t purely light entertainment, they are also a show of power and control. In the same way that the senior employee or boss is more likely to make a joke or a comment in a normal work situation then so does Owen in a rugby match. Rugby needs more referees like Owen, not less.
English rugby now has a new league
December saw the creation of a new league in English rugby. There was no flashy launch, it doesn’t have a sponsor or a twitter account, and features just three teams, but it is a league none-the-less. The three teams are Bristol, Worcester and Sale, who find themselves in a competition where the prize for the top two is survival in the Aviva Premiership. A situation that seemed almost unthinkable for Bristol in November; a team whose odds for survival were as long as Dylan Hartley’s disciplinary record. Two festive victories for Bristol over Worcester and Sale and a win for Worcester over Harlequins has now made the bottom of the league as exciting as the top.
Whilst the situation is potentially disastrous for Sale, a team who reportedly has its scouting targets locked on to England’s first choice outside-half George Ford, it is hugely positive for the Aviva Premiership and its television partners. Relegation fixtures make good viewing and are something that the Premiership has lacked in recent years. The disparity in squad quality between those promoted into the league, and those already there has been so great that recent relegation battles have had the same rigidity and conviction as Donald Trump’s hair. Whether Bristol or Worcester can stay up remains to be seen, but at least it will be exciting finding out.
High tackles – rugby will adapt
Although it isn’t official until January 3rd, December essentially saw another addition to rugby’s laws. A book now so dense with detail that if you switch on a lamp to read it, the light bends around it. Any contact with the head, deliberate or not, will now be dealt with severely and immediately. The eagerness to eradicate contact with the head has led some, even leading players, to conclude that rugby has gone soft and is changing for the worse. But it isn’t. Playing the head is and always has been dangerous, it just didn’t matter so much in the past because most players weighed about 12 stone.
In the modern game, some players have arms that weigh as much as Phil Bennett, which obviously increases the force in collisions. However, as the recent past has shown, rugby will adapt. It was only six years ago that Wales was aghast at Sam Warburton receiving a red card for his tip tackle in the Rugby World Cup (a challenge that would seem unthinkable today). Coaches will now ensure that all contact is aimed at the mid-chest and the problem will largely disappear, as it has with tip tackles. The change could also have a wider benefit. With lower tackles comes the opportunity for attacking players to move their arms over the contact point and offload more freely. We shall see.
Pascal Pape, have a word mate
December is a time for hammy acting. It is the very essence of pantomime and obviously a great inspiration for the role that Pascal Pape enthusiastically adopted against Edinburgh in the Challenge Cup. Having been slapped by Phil Burleigh, which was itself mindless, Pape got into character and fell to the floor like a Pantomime Dame.
It was a particularly unedifying moment for him, his club and the game as a whole. The incident wouldn’t have looked so bad if it had been an 11 stone scrum half falling to the ground, but to see a 6 ft 4 inch 19 stone lock deliberately head to the floor was embarrassing. Where’s your dignity Pascal? It’s behind you.