Loose Pass: Wayne Barnes’ display in Paris, experience tells for New Zealand and an incredible display from Ben Earl

Loose Pass Credit: Alamy
Loose Pass Credit: Alamy

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with losing control, getting it back, real national barometers, and missing talents…

If you can keep your head

A fascinating weekend of rugby to be digested. The eye-opening starter of Italy’s stunning win against Australia – the margin was wider than the single point – the bread-and-butter of England’s one-sided thumping of Japan, followed by Wales’ thick soup of a win over Argentina but building to a perfectly grilled and garnished main course in Paris on Saturday night, before dessert was served at Murrayfield on Sunday, with extra lashings of good Premiership on top. There are weekends when Loose Pass struggles to find enough to say: this weekend was one where we don’t know how to cram it all in.

As often, we’ll try and look to the side stories, the lesser-mentioned talking points. Wayne Barnes‘ display in Paris will – naturally given the nature of what unfolded – be subjected to intense scrutiny from people with two eyes and with only one, but in general, Loose Pass couldn’t find much wrong in what he did. The red cards can’t be disputed, nor can his game management and consistency.

But when the communications system broke down, the hitherto unrattleable Mr. Barnes made what might have been a significant mis-step as he struggled to regain control of his information sources. The try was – to our eye – dubious at best. Replays were on the screen, but in the absence of input from Brian MacNiece, in the confusion of whether referee and TMO could chat, a more appropriate examination of Sipili Faletea’s wriggle to the line seemed to be dispensed with.

As Thomas Ramos shaped to take a conversion that crucially, would have put France three ahead rather than one, indeed even as he began running up, Mr. Barnes was clearly audible telling someone else about his communication system problems. Ramos missed, something he had not even vaguely looked like doing all night; it was difficult not to wonder if he had not been distracted. A booing crowd is one thing, but players usually attune to the voice of the referee. Ramos, to his credit, never broke stride.

The next five minutes were chaotic, but were marked by several close calls, not least the forward pass from Willie le Roux. Mr. Barnes was struggling for control. But France managed this moment far, far better, which is where Loose Pass felt the game was probably won.

Experience and class tell for New Zealand – twice

Our commiserations to England’s women, who have put together perhaps the most dominant run in any rugby code anywhere, yet in the one game they most needed to continue it, they were undone by a moment of inspiration that could turn any tight game. Sport is cruel, but this England team deserves every plaudit and accolade possible, even if the World Cup was not to be.

But congratulations to the Black Ferns too. It’s barely a year since the NZRU was compelled to investigate the entire team culture and environment following claims of bullying, mental breakdowns and an over-reliance on dictatorial playing structures: all anti-thesis to the New Zealand way as it has been since the start of Graham Henry’s tenure.

Wayne Smith, one of Mr. Henry’s ‘brains trust’ and who has been credited with so much of the superior upskilling and expressive playing style New Zealand have come to epitomise down the years, took over, with the ever-willing Mr. Henry in tow and a phalanx of All Black greats pitching in for specialist bits of advice.

“There’s a unique set of skills, and a unique mindset to playing how we play,” said Mr. Smith. “I was adamant that I wanted to create a game that was true to our DNA. Not to reinvent anything, but just teaching the girls how to play on top of teams and how to create the skills that only we need, because we’re the only ones playing that type of game.”

The result was Saturday’s win in an enthralling game of rugby, decided by a moment of skill that defied belief. Likewise on Sunday, with New Zealand clearly rattled in Scotland and facing a demoralising defeat, on came the old head and experience of TJ Perenara. The All Blacks promptly romped home.

To Loose Pass, all this begs two questions: firstly, that New Zealand’s older generation is still a class apart from the new bunch and secondly, isn’t it glaringly apparent how little England cashed in on the intellectual capital created by the 2003 World Cup win?

The crowds don’t lie

Anybody trying to use the Autumn Nations Series as a barometer of national form ahead of a Rugby World Cup one year away usually ends up looking a little foolish, but there’s little mistaking what the respective crowds’ expectations are.

At Twickenham the atmosphere was… cucumber sandwich. In Cardiff it was tense – the roar at the victory whistle was healthy, but there were very few hymns and arias during the game. Yet in Dublin last week there was fever pitch, while Marseille on a big international matchday is becoming an experience to be on any seasoned rugby fan’s bucket list. Bolstered by the return of the crowd-pleasing Finn Russell, Scotland remains wildly optimistic.

English and Welsh fans clearly need a convincing Six Nations to start dreaming again, but in Ireland and France, the expectations for France 2023 are high indeed.

Another Saracen puts his hand up

Loose Pass went to lengths a couple of weeks ago to sing Alex Goode’s praises, but on Sunday another Saracen put his hand firmly up for Six Nations consideration.

Ben Earl is becoming a prolific purveyor of all sorts of things: turnovers, tries, assists, line breaks tackles… the lot. A multi-skilled, indefatigable master of so many of the game’s fundamental skills, he rounded off his profile with a peach of a grubber on Sunday. Not just the technique, but the vision and ability to do it. Had the ball not bounced as infuriatingly as only a rugby ball can, it might have been one of the assists of the season.

England did pay well against Japan, with the back-row in fine fettle, so Loose Pass can’t justifiably demand Earl gets a look-in immediately, but surely on the form he is on, he should get some sort of opportunity before it is too late for France?

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