Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Re-formatting rugby

UPDATE NOVEMBER 28, 2013 - Below is a post I wrote last summer about the possibility of changing the European/World rugby calendar to make a bit more sense. 
Having seen this piece in the Guardian as well as this blog by BallHandling Hooker yesterday, it seems that more are of the same idea, so here is hoping it will happen one day.
On most levels it really bugged me that the English clubs were throwing their toys out of the pram about qualification for the Heineken Cup. Hopefully you can appreciate how as a Leinster fan I wouldn't be crazy about the suggestion that our three titles in four years were somehow tainted.
But since change of some sort seems inevitable, all I can do is pray that the talks proceed to fix all that is wrong with the European rugby calendar, and with a chief architect of those 3 Heineken triumphs Jonathan Sexton backing calls for change, I may just be thanking the Premiership clubs for their whining after all should it come about. So what exactly is wrong with the way things are structured right now?
Referee Nigel Owens became a YouTube sensation when he reprimanded the actions of a Treviso player by telling him "this is not soccer".  It tapped into a common mindset among rugby fans that our sport with its oval ball is vastly superior to that of the round one.  And in many ways, this is true.
That doesn't stop rugby's powers-that-be borrowing many of the structures of the game from the association code, however, and we as fans don't seem to mind.  For me, if we really want to claim that this is not soccer, we need to get away from this way of thinking and restructure the game here in such a way that suits our own sport.
Just to give some examples of the assumptions we make that are based on soccer that are up for debate :
  • A competition should run the entire length of a season
  • In a round robin tournament everyone must play everyone else home and away
  • The Six Nations must be in February/March
Now I'm not saying that all of this needs to be scrapped, but what I am saying is that if we are to have a proper discussion about how to move forward we have to look at many of the things we previous considered untouchable.  The game's amateur status was once
untouchable, let's not forget.  But right or wrong, the decision was made, and now that it's approaching two decades since it was, the game should start making the proper adjustments.
Back in the day the "real" rugby season in Europe was the Six Nations, in other words, the spring.  This meant that the club game "had" to grow around it, and now we have a situation where the season starts at the beginning of September and runs until the end of May.  That's fine, but why do we assume that the competitions need to be stretched across that time period? 
Look at Ulster last season.  Of course I'm personally delighted my Leinster prevailed in the Pro12 final, but Mark Anscombe's men were in a hell of a groove in the opening portion of the season and had nothing to show for it.  Given it is such a long season, and given that every club is in two competitions, why not split the season in two and play each to a finish?
This, for me anyway, would provide much more of a level playing field than tinkering with the qualification for Europe ever could.  If the Heineken Cup were played on successive weeks, there would be no need for coaches to cherry-pick matches for their players, and a squad that hit a rich vein of form at the correct time would stand a greater chance of being properly rewarded.
Next we have the round robin thing.  Of course, everyone playing each other home and away is an ideal way to produce a champion.  But with the "top four" playoff system, we have abandoned this ideal.  So why not settle on an amount of fixtures that makes sense for the calendar and leave it at that, no matter how many teams are in the league?  If it turns out a particular team reached the playoffs because of a more favourable schedule, they will be found out in the knockout phase. it is with the Pro12, the fact that the regular season stretches nine months means that there is absolutely no sense of parity in the schedule.  For example, last season playing the Scarlets in September was a completely different proposition to facing them during the Six Nations.
That's another thing.  Domestic matches during international weekends?  Can we get rid of those please?  If there should be any matches coinciding with the test fixtures it should be local club rugby, giving them a chance to get people to their ground in the hope of tempting them into the clubhouse to watch the big match and drop a few quid in the process.
But back to the home-and-away debate.  Ideally I'd like to take round robin matches from the Pro12/Premiership/Top14 and give them to the Heineken Cup.  At the moment the European competition has only 6 qualifying matches while the domestic leagues have 22 or in the French case, as many as 26. 
For me, that's way, way too uneven.  If it were down to me I'd have just 16 domestic fixtures but at a push I'd say 18.  Of course the teams that are big rivals would be guaranteed to play each other home and away but for me it wouldn't be the end of the world if, say, Leinster played the likes of Zebre just the once in the season.
Now on that point I know there are several loyal travelling fans who enjoy the trip to Italy once a year and wouldn't like to see it gone from the calendar, but my take is that there is a greater good that is the reward here and for that there needs to be sacrifices.
In fact, I may even go so far as to have extra "local derbies" on the calendar.  Once you break free from the home-and-away format who's to say, for example, you couldn't have an extra round of inter-provincial Irish clashes?  That would make for half of our domestic schedule and would probably lead to bigger attendances at those games.  In Scotland, the two sides could meet each other four times instead of two.
Those matches taken from the domestic leagues can be earned back by larger Heineken Cup pools, with teams playing 8 to 10 matches to qualify for the knockouts instead of 6. 
Then we have the bedrock of European rugby, the Six Nations.  I believe it should round off the season, as the Rugby Championship does in the southern hemisphere.  Sure, it would be extremely weird for it not to be in the spring.  But it wouldn't take long to get used to?  And so what if it clashes with the FA Cup final or the Champions League?  They don't have to be played at precisely the same time as those games?
Irish women's rugby seems to have the right idea.  Their season starts with the club competition, then there's the inter-provincials, then it's Six Nations time.  That makes for a sensible schedule whereby coaches can assess the form and gather together the correct players in time for the tournament that matters most. 
In an ideal world, for me anyway, our season would go – domestic leagues to a finish first, Heineken Cup second (why not have qualification in the same season instead of for the following season like soccer?), and finally the Six Nations.  Don't worry, I know this will never, ever happen.
Assuming the Six Nations is immovable, an alternative could be starting the season with the HCup to a finish, then have the Six Nations, and end the season with the domestic leagues played to a finish in May/June (here, Euro qualification for the following season would make sense).
One further bit of tinkering I would make to the Six Nations...since it runs over seven weeks, I would stagger the fixtures at two matches a week until the final weekend when there would be three.  This ensures every team has two "bye" weeks but also that there is action every weekend. 
And on the subject of a "global season", I sincerely hope that if changes are made it is not just the European calendar that has to budge.  It should all be done in conjunction with SANZAR so as to avoid ridiculous scenarios like we had last season when Felipe Contepomi was forced to miss the Pumas' historic debut in annual top-flight competition.
Hey...I could ramble all day on this topic so I'll stop here.  I'm not saying my suggestions are cast-iron certainties to work, but my main point is that if changes are to be made, they need to be the right ones, and as much as I hate the cliché, some outside-the-box thinking is required.
All I'm hoping is that with the willingness for change in the air, a situation that doesn't often come about in rugby union, this great opportunity isn't missed.  JLP


Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019