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Five things we learnt in rugby – December

Saints smashed: Quins' Dave Ward leaves the Northampton defence trailing. Photo: Getty Images Rugby World

Paul Williams takes a look at the goings-on in the game at the end of 2017


Northampton continue to slide

Ordinarily, Leicester Tigers’ sixth defeat in a row would grab the headlines were it not that 37 miles down the road Northampton Saints continue with a bizarre run of form. It’s a run of games that move beyond defeats and lie firmly in the ‘absolutely pasted’ category.

Saints, as a collective, haven’t had it this bad since Pope Paul VI removed 93 of them from the Catholic calendar in 1969. Many of them were removed on the basis that their achievements/miracles were based on myth, not fact, which draws a rather neat parallel with Northampton’s defensive completion of late.

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Against Harlequins, Saints finished the game with a completion of just 63%. After 40 minutes, the percentage was as low as 56%, which meant that they were nearly missing every other tackle. Add to that sizeable defeats by a struggling Ospreys team and the severity of the situation becomes even clearer.

The reality is that if London Irish weren’t having such a disappointing season, Saints would be facing a relegation battle. Alan Gaffney has some major New Year’s Resolutions to sort out.

France hire a French coach – again

There was one final turkey killed off in December – France’s experiment with Guy Noves at the helm. It would be unfair to blame Noves for everything that is wrong with French rugby. It was broken before he arrived and will be broken for some time to come. The Top 14 simply isn’t set up with any sympathy for Test rugby and the national team’s performances prove that.

However, what is perhaps even stranger than Noves’s appointment in the first place is that the FFR have once again opted for an ‘older’ French coach in Jacques Brunel. It’s an approach French rugby doesn’t adopt when it comes to recruiting players for their league and picking residency-qualified players in their Test team.

Head man: Jacques Brunel is the new France coach. Photo: Getty Images Rugby World

The Top 14 is propped up by Pacific Islanders and big name SANZAAR player, yet there is a reluctance to adopt that recruitment policy when it comes to head coaches for the national team. The FFR could afford to hire anyone they like, yet they chose once again to look inwards. The mess doesn’t end there either. The FFR are pursuing Noves and his staff for misconduct in the hope that they don’t have to pay out the full contracts. Still, at least the Top 14 is going well, which is all French rugby seems to care about.

Elliot Dee citing was embarrassing

I would have found it easier to explain why a man, led by eight land-based mammals, was able to circumnavigate the world in 24 hours in the air than why Elliot Dee was cited for his ‘push’ on Andrew Brace in the Dragons‘ game against Cardiff Blues. It was quite farcical.

Forward march: Elliot Dee on the charge for the Dragons. Photo: Getty Images Rugby World

We all understand that there should be zero contact on the referee, but if a referee gets his positioning so wrong that he finds himself standing in such a narrow channel, then some of the responsibility to avoid contact is surely also his?

Players already have enough to worry about with 19st monsters flying down their channel, without having to fret over accidentally nudging a 12st bloke off his feet. It was a silly episode more suited to the panto season, not the rugby season. “Heeeeee’s beeeeeeehind you, ref!”

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Jordan Larmour goes full 1990s

If you haven’t seen Jordan Larmour’s try against Munster then I suggest you watch it below. It was glorious. A genuine throwback to the 1990s and the age of Christian Cullen. No spreadsheet rugby, no protein shake required and no bench-press record, just a 20-year-old stepping his guts out like he was trying to outrun an overzealous citing officer (see above). Three glorious steps, two off the left foot, one off the right, and six defenders left wondering what was happening.

It also begs the question why we only really see plays like this from young, inexperienced players? It is very rare that you see a seasoned northern hemisphere international even try to break from their own half. Is it over-coaching? A fear of losing the ball having been drilled into them as they move up through the ranks? Either way I want to see more of Jordan Larmour. Hat tip.

Eddie Jones has a decision to make at hooker

It is very difficult to criticise Eddie Jones. Why would you want to? His turn around of the England squad has been nothing short of seismic. However, one question remains unasked even though everyone is thinking it. Dylan Hartley is probably even asking it. Why is Dylan Hartley being picked as the starting hooker for England?

Two No 2s: Jamie George and Dylan Hartley in England training. Photo: Getty Images Rugby World

Jamie George is by some distance the best hooker in English rugby, with a consistency of performance that is now impossible to ignore, while Luke Cowan-Dickie not far behind.

Jones doesn’t shy away from making horribly blunt team selections and substitutions, just ask fellow Northampton Saint Teimana Harrison, but equally he will not be pressurised into any decision that isn’t purely his. The Hartley issue seems like the latter and isn’t likely to change any time soon.