Thursday, December 20, 2012

Heineken Cup - the Essence Of Time

Does it matter at what time your final Heineken Cup matches are played? A look at some numbers...

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Yesterday the ERC announced the dates & times for rounds 5 & 6 of the six Heineken Cup pools, both of which will be played in January.

The reason they leave it so late to decide such things is that the TV companies want to see how the six pools look at the end of round four so they can position their coverage of the deciding matches is such a way as to maximise advertising revenue.

And so in the sixth and final round of matches, we see the various pools completed one by one over six different time slots spanning from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon.

Around the twittersphere yesterday I noticed fans of several different clubs commenting on the latest schedule release, suggesting it either favoured or hindered their particular team.  Can it make a difference?

I certainly think so, and for two reasons :

1) TURNAROUND TIME FROM ROUND 5 TO 6

You often hear coaches use that phrase.  Strength and conditioning is big business in professional rugby union these days, and when the warriors emerge from the battlefield, even if they don’t have any serious injury, the backroom staff have to work to a particular schedule in order to prepare them for the next one.  Throw in the fact that every other week there’s a bout of travelling involved and it’s clear that time is of the essence.  This need comes into direct conflict with the TV companies’ desire to have the matches spread out across a weekend. 

Take Northampton Saints in round one of this season’s Heineken Cup for example.  They played their first match at home to Glasgow on Sunday, October 14, and then had until the following Friday the 19th to prepare for a trip to France to play Castres.  Compare this to the Ospreys, whose first pool game was on Friday the 12th, after which they had the comfort of an 8-day “turnaround” to prepare for their visit to Welford Road.

Even though the Welsh region lost to the Tigers that day, I’m pretty sure most coaching staffs would much rather have a longer turnaround time between matches if they had the choice.

2) KICKOFF TIME COMPARED TO EVERYONE ELSE’S

This impacts two groups differently. 

First, you have the fans, who generally detest a lunchtime kickoff time, myself included.  A rugby matchday for me is one where you have all morning/afternoon to either relax or get stuff done at home, and then once the match is over you have the evening to reflect & socialise.  When kickoff is from 12:45-1:30pm it feels like you’re rolling out of bed and into your seat in the stands, plus you either have to abandon the social element or consider the day spent despite full-time being only around 3 or 4 in the afternoon.

Heineken Cup coaches, particularly ones like Joe Schmidt, Vern Cotter and Guy Noves who would generally plan to be still in the competition when the semifinals come around, will be interested in their round 6 kickoff time for a different reason altogether.  There may be six different pools, but one of the beauties of the Heineken Cup is that it’s not just about how you do in your own pool, it’s also about how your points tally stacks up against everyone else as the four best pool winners get a home quarterfinal. 

All of which means their preference would tend to be a Sunday kickoff time, namely the afternoon one, as all the other pools will have been completed and they will have the best knowledge of what they need to do to progress.  This season, not surprisingly, that honour falls to Pool 2, where two giants of the competition with 6 trophies between them, Leicester and Toulouse, meet at 3pm on Jan 20th while the Ospreys, also likely to still be in contention at that point, will be in Treviso.

***

So…since I have shown that there can be advantages gained by the timing of the matches, the question remains – have teams actually been favoured over the years?  Well I had a quick look at the schedules of the 4 Irish provinces over the past ten competitions (including this year’s), and the results are displayed in the chart below.  Obviously turnaround times are to the left and round 6 kickoff times are to the right.

HCUP RD 5-6 TURNAROUND TIMES & RD 6 KO TIMES FOR IRISH PROVINCES (2003/04-2012/13)

6

7

8

9

FRI EVE

SAT LUN

SAT AFT

SAT EVE

SUN LUN

SUN AFT

2

0

0

0

Connacht Rugby

2

0

0

0

0

0

3

4

3

0

Leinster Rugby

2

2

2

3

0

1

4

4

1

1

Munster Rugby

1

1

1

5

1

1

1

2

6

1

Ulster Rugby

1

2

4

0

2

1

Connacht – this is only their second season in the Heineken Cup, so it’s not surprising that for the second year in a row they get a 6-day turnaround from round 5 to round 6.  If they get back in next season, however (not out of the question as Ulster are serious contenders plus Leinster and/or Munster could be involved in Amlin even if they don’t get out of their pools), their improved record might see them get more respect next time around.

Leinster – Their stats seem to be the most evenly spread over the years.  Their success in recent seasons has seen them tend to be featured in Sky’s “marquee” slot of Saturday evening at 6pm more often.

Munster – the Sunday lunchtime kickoffs may be a bitch, and Munster may have two of them to contend with in rounds 5 & 6, but for the reasons I outlined above I’m not so sure Rob Penney & his staff will mind all that much.  A normal seven-day turnaround from round 5, plus the fact that 16 of the 24 competing clubs will have their pool matches completed when Munster kickoff against Racing at Thomond on Jan 24th, isn’t a bad state of affairs for the two-time champions.  Since their success in the competition came first from an Irish perspective, it’s not surprising that they lead the way in the prime Saturday evening TV slot over the years either.

Ulster – They have certainly had the most advantage amongst the provinces over the ten year span, with as many as six 8-day turnarounds between rounds five and six, plus the most Sunday kickoff times.  Now they have reached a stage where emerging from their pool is expected of them and could be on course for a second final in a row.  Obviously there are many more factors than time that have contributed to this, but it certainly can’t have hurt.

So to summarize…it seems time can be a factor in the deciding rounds of the Heineken Cup, though looking at the trends over the years, with Irish goggles anyway, it seems the “powers-that-be” have done the best they can to make things fair.

Do you agree? JLP

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