Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Sour grapes, rabbit holes and European Rugby

One of the top unwritten rules of sporting social media is that you should never log on to Twitter, Facebook or any such place when your team has just lost.  Emotions will be running high and there are bound to be raft of comments you're not going to like.

So I probably should have let the above tweet go.  Well, in my defence, if I responded to every such comment I wouldn't have time to live let alone run this site so I suppose engaging once in a while is no harm.  I'm just opening the post like this to explain to all those who would say "Why did you bother?"

Anyway...before I outline how the exchange between myself and Simon Thomas of WalesOnline went on, I must first point out that he is among my top "go to guys" when it comes to Welsh rugby.  If I want a slant on some breaking news in the game over there, I usually don't form an opinion without first checking on what he has to say.

That of course doesn't mean I will always agree with him, and our views certainly appear to differ somewhat on what has transpired in European Rugby over the past few years.
What followed from then on was exactly what I normally dread in social media....the "rabbit hole".  Back and forth and back again with the tweets, other people joining in on both sides of the argument, and absolutely nothing getting resolved.

But let's get on to the matter at hand.  First up, the "sour grapes".

This is a Leinster-centric site - as a season ticket holder, while I would have opinions on matters in the other provinces, I only feel fully justified to speak for my own.  So my focus would be on Leinster's three defeats out of three.

Yet in my writeups for the matches against Wasps, Bath and just yesterday Toulon, I make it clear that in each case, we were architects of our own destruction.  It wasn't about big money spending by English & French clubs, it wasn't about format changes, it wasn't even about Pool 5 being a classic "Pool of Death".

So my response to Simon had little to do with sour grapes.  It was more about rejecting his premise, and this is why I flipped his comment back on itself.

In sport it's obviously common for people to see things in entirely different ways.  More often than not it's one team against the other and each of them wants to win so it's hardly surprising for the perspectives to be very different on how the result came about.

This polarization naturally spills over to matters outside the actual sporting occasions themselves.  And as the media war to change European Rugby played itself out, the battle lines were clearly drawn and it was pretty evident throughout where everyone involved stood on the matter.

The narrative being pushed by Simon in his tweet was teased out over the course of the "rabbit-hole" exchange, and to be fair it was pushed a lot more strongly by others.  Seemingly the IRFU was "outspending" the other unions and this is why the Heineken Cup had to have an overhaul.

It won't surprise you that I see things differently.  For one thing we were actually filling grounds to capacity on a regular basis despite having other big sports to compete with, so you could say we were earning the money we were spending.

So let's just say if I could go back in time to just after Leinster's 3rd Heineken Cup triumph in 2012, I could post a tweet like this :

"5 Heineken Cup wins out of 7 for Irish provinces in recent years.  Fascinating to see how the rest of Europe responds to that."

And respond they did.  Hiding behind claims of unfairness in the qualification process and backed to the hilt by BT Sport, the Premiership clubs led a charge (backed up by the French clubs and Welsh regions) to revamp the premier European competition.  No need to go much deeper into the process that followed, because we all know the result.

But had Premiership clubs won even a couple of titles in during the course of those six years, I very much doubt as many would be questioning the status quo at the time.  And people seem to forget that the "old way" was one that was agreed by all of the "Six Nations" unions (though even then the English were slow to join the party).

I'll get to this in more detail later but I want to make it clear that I was in favour of many of the changes made (like direct qualification and trimming from 24 clubs to 20), as were a large portion of Irish fans...a point oft forgotten or ignored by those who go looking for "Irish outrage" in the twitterverse.

But while the cosmetic changes to the tournament are normally the ones held up as vindication, the dogs in the street know they weren't the driving force behind the change.  It was always about cold, hard cash and how it's divvied up.

The Premiership Chairmen wanted a rugby version of UEFA's lucrative Champions League, plain and simple.  And not just in tournament format, but also in financial structure.

Rather than have just one corporate sponsor lending its name to the competition, the idea is to leave room for multiple contributors and watch the mega bucks roll in.  This isn't exactly the worst way to go, I might add - and I am fully aware the overall pot is sweeter as a result.

Er, except that in the first season there was only one such corporate backer - Heineken.  Essentially, it was still the Heineken Cup.  For this campaign, Turkish Airlines are on board, huzzah.  So that's why I now call it the Heineken (plus one) Cup.

It's not sour grapes to point out that logistically the EPCR's handling of the change over has been, to stretch the limits of politeness to their fullest, sluggish.  It's pure fact.  But I'm straying from the topic at hand so let's leave that for another day.

All I'm asking is that Irish fans don't accept the narrow-minded narrative still being peddled.  The times have changed and the deals have been done - and it actually WILL be fascinating to know how the IRFU respond, but Ulster, Munster & Leinster all won their European titles fair and square, and don't let anyone else tell you otherwise.   

Now...back to my personal opinion on format changes.

I was about halfway down the twitter rabbit hole when Simon said this :

He means the old formats, both in the Pro12 and Heineken Cup.  

Well for one thing, I'd be flattered to think he paid that much attention to my material to know I didn't complain.  I actually think he's trying to lump me into to this "Irish outrage" category, and I wasn't having it...
...after which Simon changed tack and said "ok, what were your reforms then?  What would YOU have done?"

A fair question, if a tad disingenuous given the previous one.

This is why twitter is a bad place to carry out these "debates".  At least it is for those not pushing an overly-simplistic narrative.  Not a lot of room for nuance in 140 characters, and there's not often a lot of time to go digging up links when you've a million and one other things to be doing in "the real world".

Only a blog post gives me enough space to lay out my position.  Like this one from 2008 where I bemoan the lack of Celtic League fixtures on the January weekend before the Six Nations, or this one, also from the same year but originally posted on a personal blog, where I lay out my proposal for a pan-European season-long league structure.

If there's one thing I've harped on ad nauseum since this site's inception, it's the crazy stop-start nature European rugby calendar.  For me, fixing it, if done the right way, can be a silver bullet for all that ails the game at the highest level, both for the clubs and the test nations, in hemispheres north and south.

The way things are right now, even the World Cup is something of a a nuisance to the European game.  Just a couple of weeks between New Zealand lifting the trophy to the kickoff of the Rugby Champions Cup?  Absolute lunacy.

I have laid out many alternative ideas on this site over the years which I hoped would satisfy all involved, yet instead it has been the ones who shout the loudest with the deepest pockets who get their way and as long as this goes on, the underlying problems will remain.

But for this post, I reckon I have made my point that I have never been a fan of the general status quo in rugby on the continent.   It just doesn't take from my love of the game enough to stop harping on it week in and week out, and as the matches keep on coming, we have to soldier on with what we have.

As will they soldier on in Wales, and in England, and in France, and in Scotland, and in Italy, everywhere this amazing game is played.

One positive thing I will say about those twitter rabbit holes...they only go so deep because those involved care so much about rugby.  Maybe we disagree on the bits and pieces, but we can agree on that.  JLP

PS : It was also heartening to know the twitter exchange was providing some entertainment...
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