The talking points: Weird mid-season rugby-free weekend

Brett McKay Columnist

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    I still don’t get it. And I don’t really know how it took me until a fortnight ago to put two and two together. But here we are. Super Rugby ended last weekend; the first June Tests start next weekend.

    It signals dangerous times for the southern hemisphere rugby fans.

    And there’s no point me telling you what to do this weekend, it’s every rugby fan for themselves. Some will elect to head down the sappy path and go and ‘reconnect’ with their ‘families’. Others will see an opportunity for the long overdue comeback on the playing field.

    I don’t know what path you’ll take, I just hope you avoid the ambush of odd jobs around the house.

    Here are the talking points for whatever we’re supposed to call this weekend.

    Friday night footy!
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    So, why do we have a weekend off?
    Honestly, why do we?

    It’s not like the British and Irish Lions are lobbing into town anywhere, so why did the free weekend need to be plugged into the draw?

    The Test teams needed to start preparations, you might say? Well yeah, maybe. But was a full fortnight really needed?

    As it was, New Zealand and South Africa didn’t name their squads until Saturday night or Sunday. Australia decided – strangely, as I pondered last week – to name their squad last Thursday, supposedly because the players couldn’t possibly find out Sunday morning they were in the squad, print out the ticket attached to the email, and make their way to the Sunshine Coast later that same day.

    Supposedly there was also the reason that they wanted to gather on the Sunday so they could start training Monday. But we know the Force and Rebels players didn’t leave Melbourne until 8pm Sunday night, so all those guys wouldn’t have done a lot Monday morning anyway.

    And if the gather Sunday, train Monday idea really was a thing, why was the Rebels-Force game scheduled for the Sunday? Why couldn’t that have been Saturday afternoon?

    Last weekend didn’t make much sense to me and this weekend makes even less sense to me. I don’t get it.

    Judiciary lotto strikes again
    I need to state from the outset that this isn’t me having a go at ‘dirty Argentineans’ again. It just so happens that the judiciary handling of a Jaguares player has sent me over the edge again.

    Jaguares lock Tomas Lavanini was on Tuesday suspended for two weeks – but one game, because of this weekend – for dangerously charging into a ruck, and once again, the SANZAR judiciary box-ticking exercise has managed to come to a conclusion in spite of itself.

    After receiving submissions and accepting that Lavanini’s charge should come in at the lower end of the scale, judiciary officer Michael Heron QC then went into the area of the checklist that never fails to disappoint.

    “Mr Lavanini has three previous citings and a yellow card for similar dangerous play,” Mr Heron found.

    “Because of his previous conduct and repeated offending, I indicated I would add a week to the suspension [to three weeks].”

    All makes sense to this point. But, wait…

    “Given his remorse, cooperation and early plea, I was prepared to reduce that by one week to a resulting suspension of two weeks [covering two matches] and I gave that indication,” Heron found.

    Seriously. Three previous citings and a yellow card indicates a clear pattern of play here, yet because Lavanini was a good boy during the conference call, he won a one-week discount! You can’t make this up!

    But there’s more. Sunwolves and Japanese veteran lock Hitoshi Ono was given a yellow card for what TMO Ian Smith described as “deliberately [using] his head to back into the [Brumbies] defender”.

    As the yellow card was held up, referee Jaco van Heerden told Ono, “I think you know what you were doing; a deliberate head butt, that’s a yellow card offence.”

    Come the judiciary hearing, Mr Heron QC had other ideas, suggesting that after starting at an entry point of four weeks, and handing Ono the maximum 50 per cent discount for an unblemished record over 96 Tests and what must be four decades of professional rugby, he was “accepting that this was reckless behaviour and not intentional use of the head”.

    “In particular, the player’s exceptional disciplinary record made it very unlikely he would intend to strike another player with his head. The statement from the referee supported that.”

    Except that both referees said that it was a deliberate action!

    For the record, I don’t really have an issue with either finding. Lavanini’s record perhaps did deserve an extra week, but it’s really neither here nor there.

    Once again, it’s the ridiculous contradictory findings from a judiciary officer that has left me dumbfounded. I don’t get how three previous citings and a yellow card for the same charge can be ignored for good behaviour during the hearing. I don’t get how two referees saying something was a deliberate action can be interpreted as them supporting that the action was not deliberate.

    None of it makes sense. And it’s getting seriously ridiculous.

    ARU takeover has a lot of potential for the Western Force
    Alby Mathewson said beforehand that Force players were a bit nervous about the impending ARU takeover, but Matt Hodgson and come out since and said the players were much more at ease with the situation. Essentially, the Force will continue to run themselves in Perth, it’s just that now the cheques will be sent from ARU HQ.

    It means that immediately, the ARU will get a very real, first-hand look at the kind of challenges the Force regularly face. They will very quickly realise the lengths Rugby WA has to go to in order to get noticed and gain traction in a town dominated by two rather big, heavily supported AFL clubs.

    Which means it will be in the ARU’s best interests to make the Force an on-field, well, force, in the quickest timeframe possible. You’re thinking about coming home, Nic White? You’d like to coach back home in Australia, Les Kiss? Well great, we’d love to help bring you home, but have we told you how nice Perth is?

    It potentially opens sponsorship doors, too. Remembering that the Force haven’t had a front-of-jersey naming rights partner for the past few seasons, the ARU could – and should – get clever.

    If the ARU is renewing Qantas, for sake of picking one as an example, they could suddenly throw the front of the Force jersey into the mix and do the deal for not a massive amount more. Or working the other way, a major WA-based company could suddenly get access to say, the Wallabies coaches’ training kit, for a couple of hundred thousand more, if they were willing to stump up for the front of the Force jersey.

    The future of Michael Foley, and whether he stays on for his final year in 2017 or not, will probably give us an idea of how the new arrangement will work. But ultimately, the ARU literally cannot afford to allow the franchise to go any further downhill.

    Sonny Blues Williams
    In what we should recognise as a significant move, given the typical length of contract he’s signed for the last seven or eight years, it was fantastic that Sonny Bill Williams committed his future to New Zealand Rugby and the Auckland-based Blues for three seasons.

    It’s a clear sign that Williams wants to down roots and establish himself as a rugby player, and in doing so in Auckland, it’s just win-win-win as far as I can see.

    The Blues, finally, have a player they can build around. The Tana Umaga lure would’ve been strong for some players, but it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the SBW lure is stronger again. I’ve mentioned this a few times since the news broke, but you can’t help but wonder if Beauden Barrett might not be now similarly tempted.

    Some pretty handy midfielders down the highway at the Chiefs will be resting a little easier, too. And no doubt that would’ve played a part in the New Zealand Rugby Union’s pitch; Charlie Ngatai, Seta Tamanivalu and Anton Lienert-Brown have got a nice little battle going there in Hamilton, without having it further complicated by throwing a 30-cap All Blacks centre into the pot as well. Four clearly wouldn’t go into three spots on game day.

    And obviously, Steve Hansen will rest a little easier, as well. It was Hansen’s call after the Rugby World Cup euphoria had died down, that convinced Williams rugby – and New Zealand rugby – was where he needed to be. Just one simple phone call. It could turn out to be New Zealand Rugby Union’s best return on investment ever.

    Oh no, Eddie Jones is on to us…
    Eddie Jones and his England squad landed in Brisbane on Thursday, to commence preparations for the first Test against the Wallabies down on the Gold Coast. And there’s just no putting one over the man with the English Rose on his chest and a very distinctive accent.

    “It’s all orchestrated, mate,” he said on arrival, after being delayed in customs while his bags were checked good and proper. “You guys should know, you’re part of it,” he told reporters at Brisbane Airport.

    But see, we knew that he’d know that we all knew it was part of the plan. The first thing ‘Cheik’ said to Payto, and Panda, and Georgie, and Smithy, and Bret, and Jim, and Lutts, and Blocker, and Beth, and Vince, and Daz, and Nick from The West, and Spiro, and me, and the GAGR boys when he sat us all down at the first secret media planning and catch-up day on an undisclosed Sunday during the Super Rugby season was, “Eddie will know we’re all in on this”.

    The very first part of the plan he told us was, “Bruce is going to pull him up in customs in Brisbane”.

    So Eddie knows we’re working against him. But knowing what’s coming is only part of it. He’s still got to actually stop the next part of our coordinated and occasionally dastardly plan.

    I can’t say too much more at this point, except to say that he still hasn’t worked out that Karmichael Hunt not training is all part of the plan, too. Straight out of Kevin Walters’ Queensland State of Origin preparation playbook, in fact.

    So welcome back to Australia, Eddie. We hope you enjoy your stay. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

    Enjoy your rugby this weekend. Oh, that’s right, you can’t…

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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