On the night of the end of the Lions tour in Cape Town, the end of the least watchable series in modern history, there was a rush to leave it behind. Had Warren Gatland’s tourists managed to cross the line, it would have been celebrated like the pioneers in 1974, especially given the circumstances of Covid. The problem would have come to mount the reel of the highlights.
The preamble to the Test series could launch a few sequences where the ball had enough air to float, although the opposition’s attempts to pierce it were a bit dubious. By the time they stepped around the bend for the first test, the script had changed, however. Subsequently, the pieces to be savored needed an exercise to see the light of day.
It wasn’t a shock. When the stakes in the sport go up, the wings tend to cut. We don’t know if attacking coach Gregor Townsend was okay with the Lions’ way of using the ball across the three tests. Maybe it was still the plan to run into the battlefield, ditch that gear, and then dress for the heavy stuff. It would certainly have been very difficult for the mind and body to sustain the war of attrition throughout the tour.
More likely, this has always been part of Gatland’s strategy. The benchmark was the World Cup semi-final meeting between South Africa and Wales. The Springboks won a brutal game of chess. Who could say that a rebound of the ball or a different decision by the referee on the spot would not have allowed Wales to play their first final? So plow the same furrow and hope for better weather.
That it didn’t work was only half the story. The other half was the sheer horror of the approach. It was the very antithesis of what the game is: going forward, scoring tries. The idea being that this should be achieved by the occasional passing of the ball.
In what looked like a tiny gap between the end of the longest season and the start of this news, we were struck by the number of people who have declared open disdain for more of the same. There are two parts to this: first, there is the monotony and frustration of the box-kick followed by one-out rugby; second – but apparently less urgent – is the physical toll of a relentless biff.
Before you can say that ‘rugby is about underground’ came the odd prospect of 12-a-side rugby. At first glance, this is hardly worth considering, given the lack of detail around its launch, but the timing on its own – stuck between the terrible hangover of the Lions series and the start of a new season – makes us think.
Yes, it wasn’t that long ago that we were told that Rugby X was going to bother our lives. It was a 5v5 variation on a Sevens theme, played on a quarterfinal pitch. If he’s still alive, his heartbeat is undetectable. Interestingly, he had the support of World Rugby, which is not the case with Rugby 12.
This latest presentation is set to involve the best players in the world who come together for three weekends at the start of a season in a game where teams have six forwards and six full backs. If that sounds crazy, think about the corner that could suddenly unlock the availability door. But also consider the motivation behind the whole operation. Yep, winning corn is his heart, but above all it is the recognition that rugby needs something to make it more attractive, more salable. It might take another punt from a different consortium with a different model to get some traction, but let’s go.
Recognizing the sterility in which gambling finds itself is one thing. Fixing it while dealing with the most critical threat – security – is another. Rugby 12 is little detailed on how the game would be played beyond having more space and fewer stoppages. Without addressing either the tackle or the breakdown, it doesn’t alleviate the existential threat to the game.
It’s a longer game, World Rugby knows it’s coming but doesn’t know how to get there. So when the final incarnation of Celtic Rugby / PRO Rugby kicks off next weekend, fans will be taking samples to see if it’s something they can support. They don’t want an extension of the Springboks against the Lions. They don’t want a landslide either.
When PRO12 went to PRO14 four years ago, the atmosphere at launch had an unreal vibe. The new boys – the kings and cheetahs of South Africa – appeared as new boys in school: wide-eyed and well-dressed but a little nervous. After a few weeks of pounding in wet weather, on heavy terrains, it was clear this just wasn’t going to work. South Africa has provided money, but little quality.
The antennas will therefore be fully deployed next Saturday night for signs of discomfort for the Sharks at Thomond Park and the Bulls at Aviva. Both South African teams are now on Irish soil, but it is understood that the Sharks arrived in Dublin still trying to fill in some basic details like where they were going to train and if they could get the facilities free. It is difficult to understand how this box would be unchecked so late in the day.
Munster will be very busy and desperate to make a positive statement. If their opponents are struggling to finish a sentence, it will be the equivalent of running out of beer before the party starts.
In this country, the main interest is whether Johann van Graan’s team can finally progress, followed by Leinster’s attempt to once again become a dominant force in Europe, rather than respected. Recruitment is the soul window on that one, supplemented by what is promoted from within.
In Munster’s case, Simon Zebo’s return is good for business, even though Andy Farrell has kicked him out of the 50-man Irish squad he announced last week.
However, we would be more interested in what is happening in the front row. On four tight heads, Keynan Knox and Roman Salanoa are still far from the playing time they need to progress. In the meantime, Munster has just signed qualified hooker for Ireland Declan Moore, who was in the Rebels squad last year without making the note. Couldn’t this void have been filled a little closer to home?
Meanwhile, the Leinster is struggling, with five senior players, the most recent of which is All Black Michael Ala’alatoa. There’s nothing so healthy about a loose head. For the most intriguing news from Leinster, you have to explore below the Academy level, where they failed to secure the services of Lucas Berti Newman, a star on the Newbridge College side before Covid struck. This kid is an outrageous midfielder talent who would have loved a place at Leinster Academy. Nothing to do. Pat Lam signed him last week for a three-year contract with Bristol.
With Karl Martin in Montpellier and Seán O’Brien in Exeter, via Connacht, three young centers from the most productive province of Ireland took a train or a boat elsewhere. If you were tasked with constantly developing guys who could change the game, you’d be worried.
And if you were at Connacht you would be concerned about the challenge posed by the newly arrived South Africans for this United Rugby Championship. This is a good start for promoted coaches Peter Wilkins, Mossy Lawler and Colm Tucker. However, the biggest issues for head coach Andy Friend are surely the consistency at 10 and keeping Abraham Papali’i on the pitch.
As summer turned into fall, you watched Ulster and wondered why they hadn’t filled in the hole left by Marcell Coetzee, whose departure had long been reported. The South African could write the book on the number eight ball carrier. His only equipment was the front. There may have been occasional stalls but the engine never stopped.
The prospect of Leone Nakarawa – a remarkably skilled ball player – filling the void still seemed distant, given his recent history of being where he was needed at the right time. Indeed, the case collapsed.
Then, just before the curtain rises, the theater announcer calls for silence to declare a late change of casting: Duane Vermeulen will make an appearance in the second act. He has enough credit and recognition factor to simply be known in the rugby world as Duane. At his best, he was a beast. He’s 35 and has had to deal with a few setbacks, almost stepping in the door of the series against the Lions.
He played for South Africa yesterday in Brisbane where for some reason they have only won once in the past 28 years. Until he got a hit, Duane was solid in a team with a lot of loose pieces falling off. Is this solid what Ulster needs?
If Dan McFarland’s men are looking for a missing link, so is rugby. You wouldn’t want to put too much pressure on a competition that is constantly changing clothes, but really this URC has to look smart as soon as it steps onto the podium. And stay like that.
(All matches on Premier Sports, Irish broadcasters named below)
Friday September 24
Zebra vs. Lions, 5:35; Ulster v Glasgow Warriors, 7:35; Cardiff v Connacht, 7.35, TG4.
saturday 25 september
Benetton vs. Stormers, 1.0; Leinster vs. Bulls, 5.15, TG4; Munster vs. sharks, 7.35; RTÉ;