Tuesday, April 15, 2014

It’s the calendar, stupid

The European Rugby Champions Cup is going to fix everything, right?


As the English press constantly harp on how much rosier things look in the European garden now, what say we take a look at what exactly has changed?

Teams will now find themselves in a pool of four, with two matches in October, two in December and two in January.  The pool winners will qualify for the quarterfinals.

Don’t worry - I’m not on a mission to suggest that nothing has changed at all.  With four places stripped from the Pro12 and seeding weight based on the previous season’s form rather than an overly-complicated points system spanning the last four years, in theory at least the pool strength should be a lot more equal than before.

So as you can see by the above paragraph, even though I am an Irish fan but I actually see some good in the new system.

But has the new dawn really sorted all that ails the game on this continent?  I think not.

The reasons for this “fix” have nothing to do with anything other than money.  We all know that.  With fewer clubs dividing a greater pot, it’s pretty clear what helped resolve the row.

Yet days after this major pronouncement, we are now reading that the English clubs which Mark McCafferty suggested were so unified don’t actually trust each other when it comes to playing by the rules, so how can we expect to trust them with being fair with the new competition?

And if the whole thing about Irish provinces resting players was such an issue, why wasn’t the suggested solution one that would actually fix it?

I still don’t understand why root and branch reform of the European rugby calendar isn’t higher on the pecking order of talking points these days, and I firmly believe that a major opportunity has been missed with these negotiations.

We don’t rest players for big matches here in Ireland because we want to cheat.  We rest them for big matches because the calendar gives us no choice if we want to have any hope of competing in the major competitions. 

Pro12 games one week, Heineken the next, the Six Nations slap bang in the middle of the season (sometimes with Pro12 on the same day)…when I step back from my long-term familiarity of the status quo it really does seem absurd.

Then we wonder why an All Black side can drive down the field to score a winning try at the Aviva Stadium in what was literally the final play of their season at the end of November.  Could it have something to do with the fact that the squad had been together since the beginning of August?

Meanwhile at the end of our regular season, we have the ludicrous situation of the Pro12 Grand Final happening a week AFTER the Heineken Cup one so if you happen to be in both, you are effectively punished for it. 

Never mind the fact that a team can win all it’s matches from the beginning of September to the middle of May and have absolutely nothing to show for it.

Ideally, I would like to see the Pro12/Premiership/Top14 kick off the European season, played to a finish (with fewer league matches), the Euro comps (with more pool matches) then played to a finish, then a short break before the Six Nations rounds off the season in April/May.  Then the national squads can head to the southern hemisphere for tours a lot more ready for what lies ahead.

Or, if the Six Nations absolutely had to stay where it is on the calendar (best reason I can think of for this is to make organising of Lions tours easier), why not start the season with the Euro comps before Christmas, and let the domestic ones run alongside the 6N and on through to the end of the season, a bit like the ITM Cup & Currie Cups do in the southern hemisphere.

Are we afraid here in Europe to copy systems that work elsewhere?  Because Super Rugby & the Rugby Championship are not set up the way they are to spite us, they’re set up the way they are because they tend to work.

I really don’t think it’s ridiculous to allow coaches of elite rugby teams to have the tournaments they are competing in ring-fenced on the calendar to ensure they can get the most out of their squads for the duration.  But that’s just me I guess.

We’ll just have to wait another 5-8 years until the next European row over money comes to the fore before we can look at it again. JLP


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