Saturday, April 26, 2014

This Game Of Ours

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No game last weekend for (first team) Leinster, which could put me in a real bind for my “Monday match writeup”, but with a bit of outside the box thinking I have instead chosen for a medley of mini-writeups from four matches which caught my eye over the weekend, with all of them providing examples for my final heading on the general state of  rugby union at the moment. So off we go...

PONTY 22-22 LEINSTER A

Not easy to write about a match I didn't see I know, but the way the British & Irish Cup semifinal was presented to me was quite amusing I found, especially right at the end.

I had to follow the excellent “ClubLiveApp” for updates as the Sarries/Clermont game was kicking off on the TV, yet despite all the early controversy which was happening at Twickers I couldn't take my eyes off my tablet for what looked like an absolute thriller of an ending at Sardis Park!

Jack Conan saw yellow on 67 minutes and when Ponty got a pen a few minutes later to stretch their lead to 7, it looked as though that was that for us, but I still kept refreshing the browser because our A team have made a habit of late fightbacks in this B&I Cup competition over the years. Then this update popped up...

“Stoppage time being played. Dippy Ryan charges down a kick and Leinster have a scrum Ponty 5m line, (82')”

Cue 5 minutes of me hitting “refresh”, with nothing new added. Surely the match is over.

“Try – Andrew Boyle (87')”

WOO-HOO!!! Hang on...where was the try scored? Is it an easy conversion? What's happening? Refresh, refresh.

“Cathal Marsh needs to slot over the conversion to take us to extratime potentially... (87')”

Nice bit of suspense, but where is the kick being taken from? Refresh, refresh...

“Conversion – Cathal Marsh (88')”

Get in!!! 22-all and extra time to come!!! This match is very much on!!! And with that, multiple refreshes later, it turns out we won on a countback of tries after neither team could add to their score in 20 minutes of extra time.

I am in no doubt that there would be a decent viewership for this match had it been televised. My suspicions are that BBC Wales were worried about the possibility of the “Get Roger Lewis Out” brigade using the fixture as a platform to make their protestations known to a wider audience, but I could be wrong.

Still, it sounds like it was a gritty performance by both sides and clearly Ponty did themselves proud and having gone to Cornish Pirates and won in the quarterfinal, there is no doubt they are a quality outfit and I wish them all the best as they look to win the Welsh Premiership.

As for Leinster A, it's yet another final in this competition for us and with it to be played in Dublin I have begun a “campaign” for the competition to be renamed for what could possibly be it's last ever match.

The opposition will be known next week when Bristol play Leeds, and if it's the former who we must face that will make for an interesting occasion for Darren Hudson and Jack O'Connell, both of whom are Bristol-bound when the season is done!

SARACENS 46-6 CLERMONT

An outstanding result for a semifinal it has to be said. But for Brian Moore to go on the offensive against anyone who dares to criticize Sarries today was nothing short of pathetic.

Say what you like, Brian, but first of all, Jared Payne's red card was not a 100% certainty and definitely affected their win in Belfast. Please note – I'm not saying it was never a red, just never a definite one as the English media have suggested since it happened.

Then we have a series of fortunate occurrences for Sarries in the first half of which these are just three examples...

  1. Yellow card for Brock James? All the way. Penalty Try? No way. Simple as. Nigel got that wrong.

  2. If preventing a certain try was such a no-no by Nigel's interpretation then Schalk Brits should have seen yellow for the penalty he conceded as Clermont were camped on the Sarries line later on.  Again I can say “simple as”.

  3. This one wasn't Nigel's fault...the interpretation of the laws for Farrell's try was correct and the ball did strike his knee. But did he mean for it to hit his knee? Absolutely not. He didn't exactly go out of his way to take his arms away from the ball as it came near him and it was nothing but dumb luck that things went as they did.

Just to be clear...Clérmont were a shadow of their normal selves and seem to be winding down as the Cotter era comes to a close. But they did have some serious breaks go against them and deserved more points on the board than 6, especially after their purple patch in the second quarter.  But I doubt there are many sides who wouldn’t have had the heart knocked out of them by that lucky Farrell try.

My overall point is that on the evidence of Saracens' path to the final thus far, the jury must certainly be out on them being a great European side. I will be very interested to see who is chosen to referee the final...I have a sneaky suspicion it will be Alain Rolland, and if so, we'll see how Lady Luck looks on Nigel Wray & co.

GLASGOW 37-34 EDINBURGH

Didn't see this match either, but I found the timeline of the scoring extremely interesting, and being a blogger who regularly follows the Pro12 I feel I am well placed to make some observations.

First, let's look at what Scottish rugby needed from this fixture...entertainment for the fans, maximum points for Glasgow as they push for a top four spot, but without a blow-out victory margin as surely season tickets for 2014/15 are going on sale around now for Edinburgh as well.

Well will you look at that...not only do Glasgow have the try bonus point wrapped up in a neat little bow by the 48th minute, Edinburgh's Tim Visser runs in for not one but TWO tries in the 78th and 79th minutes respectively to pinch two bonus points (and respectability) for his side.

To put all that in context, both sides had earned just the one try bonus each in their 19 matches during this Pro12 season prior to Saturday.

Am I saying there was collusion or even cheating going on? Well, maybe it's implied, but I will fall short of actually saying it; I'll just lay out the facts and let you make up your own mind. But if I were Munster, Ulster or the Ospreys, those most affected by the score, I would definitely raise an eyebrow or two.

Having said that...even if it was a manufactured outcome, given the circumstances, could you blame them? More on that in my final heading.

TOULON 24-16 MUNSTER

I don't want to dwell too much on this one...if Munster fans are half as devastated as I was when Toulon beat Leinster they surely won't want to read too many of my opinions on it.

But although there were several costly errors made by Rob Penney's men, I was impressed by their attitude literally from the opening kickoff and I really do believe Wayne Barnes' awarding of a penalty to Toulon when they were under immense pressure in that first scrum in their own 22 set the tone for this match and meant that Munster were up against it for the duration.

Did the better team win on the day? Probably. And having been critical of Simon Zebo in the past I have to note that he did play well and not just for his try, but sadly I have also heaped a lot of praise on Keith Earls this season and this was not to be one of his better days.

Much is made of Toulon and their money and it is true, it is quite the squad of Galacticos they have. But by all accounts they also seem to have Galacticos when it comes to fans and I would definitely not begrudge them a second title when it comes to May.

RUGBY UNION – A GAME OF THRONES

A couple of weeks ago I penned an opinion piece titled “It's The Calendar, Stupid” where I suggested the new European Cup format didn't exactly fix all that is currently ailing the game on the continent.

I still stand by my contention that the calendar needs to be re-done, but on top of that I feel the four matches I have covered in this post point to a wider problem affecting the game, and it is also one I have continuously harped on over the years.

The game may be called rugby “union”, but that word is misleading. Let's face it – the sport is not being governed by any kind of unifying concept. Sure, the name is justified by the fact that each nation has it's own “union”, but in terms of the game as a whole, each union operates more like a kingdom, with nigh-on total sway over its own affairs.

As long as this continues, the organisation of competitions between teams from those unions, from underage level right the way up to test, can never be on something we can call a level playing field.

Look at the way the four clubs who reached this year's Heineken Cup semifinals (the same four as last year in fact) were put together...each in contrasting ways based on differing factors like needs of home union or whims of rich chairmen.

Then we had the other two matches I have looked at from last weekend which further highlighted the challenges encountered by the Celtic nations...fear of fan revolt in Wales, fear of fan apathy in Scotland, and even here in Ireland there are those not willing to hang around in the hope of progression from the A team due to the promise of more money and game time abroad.

And don't be fooled that this is just a northern hemisphere problem either...the SANZAR nations are all virtual kingdoms as well.

A governing body which actually oversees the professional game with a sense of real fairness and union would no doubt produce it's own problems. But until one is agreed upon, the problems we all see week in week out anyway are bound to continue and in my humble opinion, we will never know just how much better this great game of ours can truly become. JLP

Click here for post-match Toulon v Munster reaction on the HarpinOnRugby Facebook page

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