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Friday, January 30, 2015

Preview : Wolfhounds v Saxons

Are we absolutely SURE the result of this match tonight has no bearing on the Six Nations table?  Because going by the two matchday 23s I'm not so sure just how "friendly" this fixture is going to be!

The one name that leaps off the teamsheets and bowls you over (ironically enough) is that of Sam Burgess.  His selection demonstrates just how keen the English are to fast-track him into their side ahead of the World Cup.  Maybe their injury list is a little longer than they'd like, but I have a feeling he was always in the frame for this fixture; in fact, it could have been promised back when he was being tempted away from the NRL.

There is absolutely no question that he has the ability to become a "smashing" 12 and this will certainly be a big test for him.  And no doubt the Saxons will be keen to get him running down our own 10/12 channel from the earliest opportunity for while Messrs Madigan & Darcy have no fear on the tackling front, they will be "sorely" tested tonight.

Clearly the selection of Madigan has been made with a view to giving him game time ahead of Ireland's Sexton-less Six Nations opener next weekend.  Of course there's no guarantee he'll start next week, but with the only other back in the 23 to play much outhalf being Noel Reid on the bench, it seems the "Mad-Dog" is down for a full 80 tonight.

It will be just the outing he needs after a disappointing return from the tee in Coventry, though again it needs to be said that he was impressive in other aspects of his game AND his overall kicking in the Euro pool phase made him leading scorer.  Add all that to the fact that he's a positive-thinking kind of guy anyway and you'd be confident that he can put in a good shift down in Cork tonight.

Another interesting selection for Joe Schmidt has been that of Keith Earls at 13.  Some may be surprised to learn that I'm a fan of his - while there have been times for Ireland where he should have passed but didn't, I believe every team needs at least one player who tends to back himself to score and I'd certainly have him well in the mix for World Cup selection...though for me, it would be on the wing.

Now to be fair...he has made no secret of the fact that he wants to play 13 and since he has been extremely unlucky with injury in recent years, this is a rare opportunity for him to make his own case and I certainly wish him well.  Might be a little disappointing for Luke Fitzgerald to find himself out on the wing having done so well for his province but there is certainly no harm in exploring all of our 13 options.

Another I'm looking forward to seeing is Kieran Marmion, and no offence to Isaac Boss but I hope the Connacht scrum half is also pegged to get a full 80-minute shift as I'd love to see him try that step of his in the latter stages against a tiring Saxons pack.

Speaking of the forwards, well, there's no sugar-coating it...this is virtually a Leinster tight 8.  But the name of Iain Henderson doesn't merely stand out because of his province.  He has all the makings of a marquee test player at Stephen Ferris levels and given all the time he has spent on the sidelines you can be sure he'll be keen to make his mark tonight.

Of course when it comes to returnees from injury, all the talk tonight will be about former European Player of the Year Sean O'Brien.  As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter a jot how he plays tonight, just that he gets a decent shift in and stays healthy.

When it comes to our bench, the name Nathan White interests me the most.  He could well be the most important figure in our World Cup plans.  Yes, we have brought through players like Marty Moore to the test team but in White we have a player who was pretty much ready for Test rugby the second he set foot on Irish soil, so clearly he's good to go now and as much as I'd be a fan of Ross & Moore I think White is a valuable string to our bow and hopefully he'll get at least half an hour tonight.

Of course the English side has more to worry us than just Sam Burgess.  There's plenty of try-scoring ability in their wing pairing of Ashton & Yarde, with Christian Wade on the bench.  You can always expect a physical battle from any English pack, and particularly when one is thrown together as this one has from four different Premiership clubs.  Our back row will certainly have their hands full.

But when it comes to picking the side that's more likely to come together and play well from the get-go, I'd have to plump for the Wolfhounds, and by a few more points than the 5 the bookies are offering. I said, the most important thing is that the players get a good run and that all goes according to Joe Schmidt's World Cup masterplan.  #ShoulderToShoulder JLP

P.S.  If you can't make it to Cork tonight for the match and want some rugby this weekend, why not check out the Ulster Bank League fixture list and see if there's a match in your area.  This is a rare weekend in the rugby season when neither the full Irish team nor any of the provinces are playing so it's a good opportunity to get out and see your local side.

SAXONS : 15 Chris Pennell (Worcester Warriors) 14 Chris Ashton (Saracens) 13 Elliot Daly (Wasps) 12 Sam Burgess (Bath Rugby) 11 Marland Yarde (Harlequins) 10 Henry Slade (Exeter Chiefs) 9 Lee Dickson, captain (Northampton Saints) 
1 Matt Mullan (Wasps) 2 Rob Webber (Bath Rugby) 3 Henry Thomas (Bath Rugby) 4 Matt Garvey (Bath Rugby) 5 James Gaskell (Wasps) 6 Dave Ewers (Exeter Chiefs) 7 Matt Kvesic (Gloucester Rugby) 8 Thomas Waldrom (Exeter Chiefs)
Replacements - 16 Luke Cowan Dickie (Exeter Chiefs) 17 Alex Waller (Northampton Saints) 18 Jake Cooper-Woolley (Wasps) 19 Maro Itoje (Saracens) 20 Carl Fearns (Bath) 21 Joe Simpson (Wasps) 22 Ollie Devoto (Bath Rugby) 23 Christian Wade (Wasps)

Friday, January 30, 2015
Irish Independent Park, kickoff, 7:45pm
Live on Sky Sports
Referee: Neil Hennessy (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Simon Rees, Stuart Kibble (both Wales)
Television Match Official: Gareth Simmonds (Wales)

Front Five - 30.01.15

Start your day with five eye-catching egg-chasing quotes & links from around the ruggersphere.

Later today on HarpinOnRugby...
our Wolfhounds v Saxons preview

So the Super Bowl isn't the only game between two teams with silly names packed with superstars this weekend after all.

Opportunity knocks as Wolfhounds get chance to bare teeth

Ruaidhri O'Connor - Irish Independent

"I’m not saying I would have been selected, but watching the November series, watching Munster playing the Champions Cup and stuff like that, it’s been really tough this year"

Keith Earls eager to grab opportunity to stake Ireland claim

Simon Lewis - Irish Examiner

Rugby Onslaught

(Sene Naoupu) qualified to play for Ireland on residency last year and Briggs says: “She’s a very good player and brings a bit of flair, something different to the squad.” 
Sarah Mockford - Rugby World

...what’s absolutely certain is that the former Counties Manukau and Samoa under-20s tight-head is a whole lot of prop.

Heavyweight France prop Uini Atonio is the biggest bopper in world rugby

Feel free to share any interesting links you spot yourself about t’internet by email, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, blog comment or carrier pigeon – whatever works for you. JLP
Note - views expressed in "Front Five" links do not necessarily reflect those of HarpinOnRugby

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Will Money & Power Affect The National Teams?

Now the pool rounds of the European competitions have been completed and a fantastic, exciting, taken to the wire affair it has been and we move towards the 6 Nations, I  find myself reflecting once again on the effect that the money-men are having and will continue to have on the club game and ergo the knock-on effect to the National game?


1. Is it correct to assume only those clubs with huge financial backers will ultimately achieve top success? e.g. RC Toulon, or the French Baa Baas as I have seen an apt description of recently or Racing Metro or Sarries, Bath etc.

2. The disproportionate and divisive monetary allocation within the leagues e.g. The current complaint from London Welsh as to their payments within the English Premiership

3. The disproportionate money from TV deals. e.g French Top 14 = Circa €60M, English Premiership = Circa €24M and Pro 12 = Circa €12.

4. The uber control that some of these money-men have. The likes of Premiership Chief Executive, Mark McCafferty; Sarries chairman Nigel Wray and Baths Bruce Craig, then of course our old friends in La Belle France, millionaire owners of Racing Metro (Jacky Lorenzetti), Toulon (Mourad Boudjellal) and Clermont Auvergne (Eric De Cromieres). Their financial and power control over the game, how it’s played, when it’s played, forcing changes through that have NOT been ratified by IRB / World Rugby e.g. setting the losing BP from 7pts gap to 4 this season in the French Top 14, all show that it is a handful of select individuals who ultimately will stop at nothing to get what THEY want.  

Even within the Irish setup there is a pecking order and I recently questioned whether Connacht Rugby had a fair opportunity to continue their current successes without sufficient, adequate and equal support in all areas within an IRFU setup that both historically and geographically may deal with other Provinces with more favourably?

It would be easy to say that that European Rugby is going or for some clubs has gone the same way as European Football with a handful of clubs in each country having both a controlling influence in monetary, player acquisition and control through what in reality is a non-footballing management organisation of their own making with the actual Football Association, charged with overseeing professional football in England some may say an almost bystander “Allowed” to oversee the lower leagues. There have also been several attempts to set up a European League but to date that hasn’t been successful. Will this ultimately become the same for Rugby? I see it happening with the English Premiership & the English RFU already?


Well the knock on effect of this separating of Tier clubs within each of the 3 leagues into effectively Haves & Have Nots, means that the focus of these money-men is their individual clubs and nothing else…..certainly they don’t appear to give a care for the National teams?

In recent years we saw Wales as the ascending National team from the British & Irish Isles yet their Regional club form didn’t match that? It even allowed good old Mr Gatland to have such a controlling influence on the touring Lions team that he could bring in a WELSH player, out of the Welsh National team for 2 years, currently playing in Japan into the Lions side at short notice when there were PLENTY of available talent back home in UK & Ireland?……………Oh yeah, and he left BOD out of the final winning match!!! (Been wanting to write those two bits in since they happened!). Anyhow at Regional level, Welsh Rugby has imploded and I don’t see it changing soon!!

The English team indeed has promised so much but come up short at both National and European Club levels. Scotland and it’s 2 Regional clubs have all failed to deliver on both stages despite Glasgow Warriors getting closer by the year in Pro 12. Unless significant monetary and akin support is ploughed into a long term venture in Scotland, I cannot see them developing at either level despite having Vern Cotter as their new National Coach?

As for the Irish? Well despite the best efforts of certain English & French rugby Nouveau Aristocrats using Irish success in both Heineken & Amlin Cups as an excuse to setup their new overarching body in a clear attempt to sway the balance of power, money & ultimately success their way, the 4 Irish Provinces are all doing ok albeit there appears to be in irreverence towards the standards of the Pro 12 in comparison with their French & English counterparts by those outside of the Celtic nations? 

This season unfortunately both Ulster and Munster have fallen short of their usual levels but this is more owing to player availability and coaching changes than any longer term effect I suspect. Connacht have been a real surprise and appear to have secured both players and coach to continue that rise. Time will tell. I don’t believe we will ever stop some class players going to England or France to dare I say it, improve their game in the widest sense. Yes money is a key but for many, it’s the opportunity to play against world class players week in and week out.

Certainly the English Premiership & Top 14 bring a difference in certain levels. Plus of course merely experiencing new horizons will develop a player. 

What therefore of the Irish National team? Well is it down to the fact that the IRFU has in place procedures to ensure that only a few Non Irish Qualified players play for our Provinces? Is it merely that fact that “Saint Joe” Schmidt has taken over at the helm? Is it indeed a mix of all? Will we be able to compete at both European and National levels and achieve the ultimate successes in both with the IRFUs setup and limitations in place?

Well a brief look at Italy where their club teams are not even at the correct levels to be playing in the Pro 12 owing to lack of financial and other support, let alone their overall player capabilities. Oh and NO they shouldn’t be automatically guaranteed a European place for their highest placed Pro 12 team. 

With the French focusing more on their top clubs and the power / money situation and the self centred approach to club success meaning the National side has failed to achieve what one would expect of them in the last few years, you may agree that yes, the money & power issues within European Club rugby IS affecting the National game. 


I believe that everything comes in waves, periods of success and periods of austerity, in title aspects anyhow. Scotland, Wales and Italy have huge Organisational Development, Structural and Financial issues to be addressed before they will achieve at either Club or National level.

France will never exploit the capabilities they have unless they cap the number of external players playing in the Top 14 leagues top 6 or so teams. The French Rugby Union like the English RFU need to put in place via their governments if required measures to combat multi-billionaires taking a controlling stake either through money or power of the clubs which in turn places “Expectations” on National coaches on who to pick and who is available and when they play and when the players are released because the billionaires in “Control” pay their huge wage bills and they’ll want  compensation if “Their” player gets injured on National duty etc etc etc…………...?

Certainly I would once again state the question, “What is the role of World Rugby (Previously IRB) in policing all this?”
It has oftentimes been said that you never know which French team will turn up on the bus on match day, well unless they change what’s happening with the influx of world players coming in, it’ll be a team mainly from their Pro D2!

I suspect that if England fail to either win or have an extremely good showing in RWC 15 this year, there’ll be a huge introspective re-appraisal at how the Premiership is being run.

As for Ireland, I suspect the IRFU have got it right or at least are attempting to get a happy medium by playing the long term game, developing home grown talent and minimising the numbers of NIQ players within our Provincial setup. Their Irish Development Plan & Vision is worth a read to understand where we are aiming for. 

Will we still be able to regain the European successes that Ulster, Munster & Leinster have previously enjoyed with this approach? Yes, I believe we can and it will be the example for many developing countries to aspire to.…..That said, the IRFU may need to relax their stance on NIQ players within our Provincial setup to keep both the standard of playing and the interest for fans at the right level? Likewise, we still need to find enough funds either corporately or privately to keep the current and developing world class Irish players at home. 

As for the playing levels of teams in the Pro 12….I refer to Wales, Scotland & Italy above and how they need to internally sort their own issues otherwise, it will remain the dominance of our Provinces with the odd non-irish team being a threat. 

There ARE however, still four Pro 12 teams in the Challenge Cup ¼ finals along with 4 English and not a Frenchie to be seen…………… Perhaps a happy medium between money and home grown talent with a mix of non-national qualified players would be better for rugby all round?

Oh as for players whose ancestry is from a certain country………..or who become qualified by years spent in that country………….well that’s another debate!

@bigjoeshep is the Owner and Head of Information & Knowledge Management atDigital Knowledge Zone.   An avid Leinster & Ireland Rugby fan, he came to rugby at the late age of 24, was a tight head prop, had at least 2 good runs in every game and retired at only 36 after 3 operations on his legs and now forms the 4th "virtual" person in a front row each time his beloved teams are playing (much to the annoyance of his suffering girlfriend who has to put up with being "embraced" by the Big Fella at each scrum!!!)


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