Loose Pass: Succession planning and a thrilling Top 14 final

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with succession planning, a big match in Europe that isn’t in Paris and one that is…

Signs for the future

The U20 World Championship has been quite instructive this week, but a number of other little stories have been as well, in terms of seeing how countries are managing their futures.

All is not lost in Australia, for example. After several lean years, there is finally an U20 side leaving its mark on World Rugby’s showpiece. The cost-cutting measures implemented by the RFU over the past two or three years seem to be catching up with the U20 side. France’s renaissance is continuing. New Zealand’s has never stopped.

It is the latter two that are genuinely instructive. In France, the federation and league are seeking to undo years of damage by finally ensuring that clubs develop young players, as well as purchasing old ones. It’s frustrating some clubs with big wallets, but the number of good young players starting to break into the first teams around the country and the success of the current U20 side shows that a foundation is being laid.

Australia’s impressive showing thus far is also a testament to the work that has been going into the sub-elite game, despite the well-documented financial issues being faced by the ARU, the ugly publicity generated by Israel Folau and the continued competition from other sports.

England’s flop is a similar testament. The Premiership clubs all have their ducks in a row, producing academy players aplenty, yet the RFU has lost player development director Dean Ryan to the Dragons amid a blaze of criticism from Ryan himself over the RFU’s model. The current coaching set-up is under pressure too. Yet the clubs continue to wield the power and coin in the cash and to some extent lord it over the RFU – hard to know where the governing body could go next.

And then there’s New Zealand. Another day, another carefully-tailored contract that allows a senior All Black a bit of time off, a couple of years to earn abroad, and a place in the squad to come back to after all that – and in the meantime, all those Junior AB hopefuls currently punishing all comers in Argentina are free to spend the next two years learning at the coalface in order to ensure Brodie Retallick does not get it all his own way when he returns. But neither Australia nor Wales will relax their contracts in this way. Not yet, anyway.

Different countries, different situations, different models, different challenges. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution, but nearly all countries now are well down their own particular strategic paths. It’ll be interesting to see how the changes to the global fixture calendar, which will surely come soon, will affect them.

Up and down existence

It’s not just in France where the championship has gone on and on and on. In Germany last weekend, Frankfurt beat Handschuhsheim to claim the national title, while this coming weekend Frankfurt will see Germany taking on Portugal in the hope of staying in the European Nations Cup.

A year ago, an ageing German team narrowly squeaked past the Portuguese 16-13 in Heidelberg. Since then, the teams have gone in somewhat different directions: Germany with a catastrophic campaign in Europe’s second tier, Portugal with a relative waltz through the third.

The Portuguese have quietly spent a good part of four or five years getting through a generation change; going from the heroes of 2007 in France to a new, youth-based and largely locally-drawn side.

Should Portugal win – and although circumstances are against them with an away match – it will mark the end of an era for the German side which was not far from World Cup qualification late last year, but has since then lost financial backing and will soon lose some significant players to retirement or professional clubs.

It could well mark the start of a new one for the Portuguese too; one of their displays in the third tier this season was described as a ‘demonstration’ by an opposing coach, yet the average age of the squad is comfortably under 25 and only two players in the 44-strong group are over 30.

A throwback final

It may have taken a long time to get there, but we’re expecting big things in Paris on Saturday when Toulouse meet Clermont for the Top 14 bragging rights.

The two most prolific attacks and the two (nearly) meanest defences go head-to-head, while there are a number of France’s brightest young lights, combined with several seasoned veterans, on show. And also on each team: one magician. For Toulouse, Cheslin Kolbe, for Clermont Damien Penaud.

A fascinating match up awaits!

Loose Pass compiled by Lawrence Nolan