Rio dream will be no easy ride for superstars, the Pro12's Champions Cup shut-out, conservative Eddie Jones and pushing referees are all discussed
The Rio dream, not as easy as some thought.
January saw Sonny Bill Williams make his debut for the New Zealand Sevens team in Wellington. Despite being part of the team that lifted the silverware, it should have made SBW realise that chasing gold in the Rio Olympics may be a bucket-list wish that can’t be ticked nonchalantly. His performance in Wellington was mixed, to say the least. A spectacular – aand much shared – offload was also accompanied by two toxic passes that led directly to two tries – plus he dropped a simple catch from a restart. Many expect the world’s best 15s players to simply wander into sevens and dominate; but it doesn’t work like that. Whilst sevens can highlight the skills of players from the 15 man game, it also exposes their weaknesses.
SBW isn’t used to taking highballs, or restarts, as he is rarely part of the Chiefs’ or All Blacks’ kick defence. He is also used to making offloads with a swarm of Velociraptor-like backrow forwards able to clean up any balls that go astray – in that respect sevens is a very lonely and isolating game. This is of course SBW’s learning stage, as he has himself admitted. However, it proves that those who think they can simply rock-up in Rio, collect a medal, and then return to 15s, boxing, or rugby league may have their work cut out. Quade Cooper will have a similar problem – sevens will glorify his pass and sidestep, but it will magnify his low tackle completion.
The greatest pool ever
I’ve witnessed some great pools over the past 20 years. One at Manumission and another at Amnesia House, in Ibiza 1995, being particular highlights. But Pool two on the final day of the group stages in this year’s Champions’ Cup took some beating. It was truly spectacular. A day where the actual mathematics of the table was as exciting as the rugby itself – a rare statement indeed. But whilst the gorgeous simplicity of Thomas Waldrom’s heavy carries and the glorious straight line speed of James Short was obviously memorable, the real beauty of Pool Two was weirdly the cold, hard, confusing Alan Turing-esque calculations.
Even when all of the whistles had blown, nobody really knew what was going on for at least three minutes. Which is a rarity in modern rugby where laptops, stats and on-screen graphics mean that the rugby public are as well informed as those sitting in team tracksuits. But not on this day. Such was the complexity that broadcasters, writers, tweeters and coaches spent at least five minutes in a mathematical paralysis – rumours that Stephen Hawking was brought in to calculate the final positions are yet to be confirmed. Waldrom, Exeter’s Man of the Match on the final day of Pool two didn’t know they had qualified until he was presented with the MOM Award. It was a remarkable few hours of rugby, and also showed the hugely positive impact of bonus points, something that the Six Nations’ has just vetoed….
The Elephant in the Champions Cup room
January saw some tremendous matches in the Champion’s Cup and this season’s tournament has been epic so far. But there is an elephant in the room. In fact, it would be a positive if it was recognised as an elephant in the room. That would at least mean that those in the Aviva Premiership and Top 14 realise that there is a damaging gap developing between the French and English teams and the Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Italian contingent. In reality, the issue isn’t regarded as an elephant in the room, more of a Pigmy Hippo.
This year’s competition has been rightfully dominated by some very good teams, Saracens and Racing being the pick of the bunch. But the long-term success of this competition relies on more than just two leagues. This has never been more evident than in this year’s competition. We are used to the Welsh, Scottish and Italian teams falling short, but for the Leinster, Munster and Ulster to fail is a worry. This year the Pro 12 teams in the Champion’s Cup (excluding Treviso’s -180 points) had a points difference of -107 points, the Aviva teams +310 and the Top 14 clubs had a points difference of -23 which included ridiculously negative points differentials from Oyonnax and Toulouse. Europe’s elite competition needs the Pro 12 teams to be competitive and something must be done to assist that.
Fast Eddie, slowed down.
Eddie Jones’ squad for the opening game against Scotland came as a surprise to many. Mr Jones seemed to promise a clean slate for England, but he seems to have left some words still chalked up on the board – namely Stuart Lancaster’s team. It may be that Eddie J used up all his ‘crazy’ on selecting Dylan Hartley as captain, or it could be that test rugby simply doesn’t allow for immediate wholescale changes.
Altering multiple combinations would indeed be foolhardy when Jones has had such little time with his new squad, seven full training sessions at the last count. Whilst the likely and necessary switching of Chris Robshaw to the other side of the scrum is sensible, the seeming reluctance to select Elliot Daly and Mario Itoje against Scotland is unusual – particularly Itoje. Most new test coaches like to introduce one new player as their calling card for which Itoje seemed the obvious candidate. Chanced missed.
Don’t push referees. Simple
There are many simple statements in the English language that are so obvious and resonant that they become part of everyday life. ‘Please mind the gap’, ‘Beware of the dog’ and ‘Never eat yellow snow’ being just a small sample. But, we need to add one more – ‘Please do not push the referee’. Viktor Kolelishvilli’s push on Wayne Barnes during January was extraordinarily stupid. The level of idiocy that you would expect to see on an American clip show where a crack addict does something bonkers in a police station.
If there was a rugby offshoot of America’s Dumbest Criminals, called Europe’s Most Stupid Rugby Players, then Kolelishvilli’s shove would be the very first clip on the pilot show. 14 weeks arguably wasn’t enough of a sanction. If a citing committee can reduce punishments for contrition, wearing a smart suit and tie etc. then time should also be able to be added for doing something so stupid that it could appear on an American Cable programme.