Rugby's Magical Mystery Tour
June 30, 2014
At least one Scotland player ended up in the wrong place during a frantic three weeks © Twitter
The never-ending tour
It is hard not to feel for Scotland's young side who were taken to the cleaners by South Africa on Saturday. There was nothing wrong with taking on South Africa to allow the new coach to see what he had to work with, and while wins over the likes of Canada and USA are morale-boosters, it is against the best opposition you are really judged. What is less understandable is the absurd Magical Mystery Tour agreed to by the SRU which had the side traveling from the USA to Canada to Argentina to South Africa, all in a little over three weeks. The waters were further muddied by players coming and going, so much so that only two who started the first match also started the last. Still, it must have been a lovely summer break for the great and good of the SRU. And credit to players and coaches for maintaining the "it's been a great learning exercise" lines when dealing with the media, when they were probably wanting to ask: "Where the hell are we today?"
Success at a price
The debate in France over the number of foreigners in the Top 14, especially the impact that has on the national side, continues to divide opinion, but what cannot be disputed are the figures themselves. Last season, 220 players who were ineligible for selection by France took part in the Top 14. That meant that around 46% of Top 14 players were eligible to be picked by France's selectors, a figure that compares badly to the 70% in the Premiership available to England. The problem becomes more acute in certain positions such as the front row. Phillipe Saint-Andre last week blamed the influx of foreigners for the current state of the national side, but that does smack of looking to shift blame. What is apparent is that cash-rich clubs allied to European employment law mean the situation is only likely to get worse and the French selectors will just have to work with what they have. As a succession of England football managers will testify, having the best league in the world with the top players comes at a price.
The real shockwaves of the attraction of the Top 14 will be felt around the world after the 2015 Rugby World Cup. At the moment most players are remaining loyal to their boards and central contracts because they want to be at the tournament. But once the World Cup is done and dusted, the dam may well burst. Australia, under-represented in the Top 14 at the moment, are likely to be the big losers but the ARU can hardly moan. It has managed to run up big losses and then cut the players pay. If those same players - short shelf lives and all - can earn a shedload more by playing in France, an appealing place to hang out even without the rugby, then who can blame them. The only course open to the ARU is to work with the situation rather than to refuse to pick anyone who heads overseas.
Not a pitch invasion, just Fijian celebrations after qualifying for the 2015 Rugby World Cup © Getty Images
Poor spectator behaviour has been in the news rather too much in the last year, and the latest two instances both happened in Wellington. In the first a friend of a player ran onto the pitch in a heated game and punched one of the opposition to the ground. The match was abandoned and the offending thug was immediately banned from watching all matches played under the auspices of the Wellington Rugby Union for five years. Unfortunately, the ban does not exclude him attending Tests as they fall under the control of the NZRU, although it has to be hoped it backs the WRU and also bans him. In the second instance a spectator walked on during a game and incensed player so much that a fight started. He at least showed remorse and was banned for six weeks and his club also sent him on a refereeing course so he better understood what the hell he was watching.
Poacher turned gamekeeper
Those who moan that there are not enough players who go on to referee at the top level should have been heartened by the sight of New Zealander Glen Jackson officiating his first Test between two top-ten countries on Saturday. In May 2010, Jackson's last game as a player was for Saracens in the Premiership final, and he immediately moved into refereeing. His ascent to the top has been swift. Within a year he was refereeing in the IMT Cup and Super Rugby appointments soon followed. Various international appoints - TMOs and as touch judge - have come and he finally reached the summit in Port Elizabeth. South Africa's coach Heyenke Meyer praised Jackson saying: "He managed the breakdown well and we were able to get quick ball." The MI
The waiting game
ESPNScrum's Greg Growden in Australia reports that the national Rugby Championship, the ARU's second-tier competition, which is due to start in August, is having a difficult birth, not least because fundamentals such as fixtures have yet to be announced. "There is serious rumbling among the troops with two Sydney clubs, apparently, losing interest in being involved in the competition and distancing themselves from the franchises with which they are supposedly aligned," Growden writes. "As disconcerting is the fact that a leading official involved in the actual running of the championship has been moved on. No wonder some franchise officials get frustrated when they contact the ARU to get details on the championship, only to be told: 'We'll get back to you'. They're still waiting for the return call."
World Cup takes shape
Fiji's trouncing of Cook Islands 108-6 secured their place at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. They only led 7-6 after 27 minutes and then the floodgates opened as they ran in 17 tries. That leaves two places up for grabs. One will be settled by the end of the week when the Africa qualifiers finish - Zimbabwe and Kenya are setting the early pace - but the final slot is not decided until October. That will go to the winners of the repechage between the runners-up in the various regions. In early August, Uruguay host Hong Kong and Russia the runners-up from Africa, and the winners of those matches meet home and away in late September and then early October. That game seems likely to feature Uruguay and Russia.
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