Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Harpin' Points 6 : Clubs v Provinces, Pro14 kickoff, Women's XVs v 7s


Every Wednesday we'll be widening our focus beyond Leinster & Ireland rugby matches, offering views on broader rugby topics and themes

CLUBS V PROVINCES

We put all our energy into covering Leinster and/or Ireland matches here at Harpin Manor, but hopefully it goes without saying that the sport wouldn't be the same without all the hard work done at clubs across all four provinces throughout the season.  No better term can be used to describe them than 'grass roots' - without it we have no sport.

Unfortunately the omelette that is Irish professional rugby could not be made without breaking a few eggs and from both a marketing and quality standpoint it made sense to put forward our provinces instead of our leading clubs to compete with those from England and France.

This was always going to have an impact on the club game, how could it not have.  From seeing the same players line out for Lansdowne, Cork Con, Malone & Galwegians one week then for Ireland the next, all of a sudden the standard dropped considerably as the cream of the crop joined the provincial set ups.

And as time went on the pro coaches weren't happy with their fringe players bouncing back and forth from the clubs which led to the advancement of 'A' rugby and the British and Irish Cup.  It's as easy to see how this helped the provinces as it is to see how much it hurt the clubs.  Playing the cup matches on European weekends meant the pro set ups had over 50 spots to fill and the 💩 only ever goes in one direction.  It was always a problem that would need addressing.

Now it seems they have been working on compromises.  Instead of a season-long B&I Cup, we now have a Celtic Cup which will be over before Christmas.  Provincial coaches get to look at their prospects, clubs get their players back at the business end of their campaigns.

But something still needed to happen at club level when it came to the structure.  The gap between the top tiers of the AIL and those below seems to be getting wider every season, and after years of tinkering with the league format and much debate, it looked to all intents and purposes that a solution had been found, at least one that was worth trying.

The sticking point appears to have been the notion of 'ringfencing' two spots for each province in the new semi-pro setup...this would shut out a number of clubs from advancing up the pyramid, particularly from Leinster.

Of course I can sympathise with this, but again we must go back to omelettes and eggs.  After a season of such unprecedented success for both Leinster and Ireland rugby, it's a shame to learn that the new proposals have been withdrawn just a matter of days before the next campaign was due to start.

Hopefully the talks haven't completely regressed to square one and that something can be put in place soon.  We want the game to thrive at all levels.


THE BIG KICK OFF

We will of course be cranking up our Leinster coverage back to normal levels this week with the team announcement Thursday followed by our match preview.

Also this season we'll be keeping an eye on other matches throughout the weekend and this Harpin Points feature will be used to keep tabs on other matches around the league as well as the Premiership and Top14 when necessary.  For Week 1 we'll be looking at these fixtures in particular : Connacht v Glasgow, Munster v Cheetahs, Ulster v Scarlets & Bristol v Bath.

I suppose no matter how much we as Leinster fans want to avoid portraying ourselves as favourites to retain our Pro14 title, we'll have to accept the mantle giving how last season went.  That said, you cannot say it will be a foregone conclusion by any means.  Scarlets have reached the last two finals and should be there or thereabouts when May comes around.  Glasgow will be expected to also contend and I'd be disappointed if we don't see improved outings from Munster, Ulster, the Cheetahs, Edinburgh and Cardiff Blues.

Right now I'm expecting a repeat of last year's final but as we all know it's a long, long season and loads can happen.

As for the addition of the two South African teams plus the conference format that came with it, I reckon both worked reasonably well given they were pretty much last minute changes.  Hopefully the league will be more prepared to avoid any pitfalls this season.  As I said a few weeks ago in this column, the one thing I'd like to see most of all is refs from neutral nations holding the whistle in all matches.


MURRAY INJURY

Joey Carbery's move to Munster was regrettable for Leinster fans yet important for Irish rugby as a whole because for all our reliance on the Murray/Sexton axis at test level, we need to give backup options as much experience as possible, so if Joey can run the show down there there have to be many positives.

The same goes for the number 9 position and while of course Munster will greatly miss their star man when the first rounds of the Heineken Champions Cup roll around, it won't do Joe Schmidt much harm to go through November looking at alternatives.

As things stand right now, I'd have Luke McGrath in pole position to start.  If you think that's my 'blue goggles' talking so be it...I contend it's down to both form and experience, particularly against the All Blacks when his time spent with Sexton will be a big help.

Next in line for me has to be John Cooney.  Nobody will ever fully replace the gaping hole left by Ruan Pienaar at the Kingspan, but there can be no doubt he was one of the bright spots of Ulster's campaign last season and has a lot to offer at test level.  As for Kieran Marmion, I reckon last season wasn't so much one where he failed, it was more a case of him staying put while others moved past him, although Joe seemed keen to continue giving him game time.

It will be very interesting to see how they're used in November, that's for sure, and the ideal scenario is one where Murray is back for the Grand Slam defence while we're still arguing over three quality options for the 21 jersey.


WOMEN'S RUGBY SCHEDULE

In Rugby World there was an interesting piece by Sarah Mockford about a recent survey carried out among top women's players in which the majority expressed concerns about the future of the XVs code because there seemed to be an over-emphasis on sevens.

For me this is a no-brainer whether it's men's or women's rugby.  While I wouldn't go quite as far as to suggest sevens is a mere 'sideshow', its role in the game should be to supplement XVs not supplant it.

I admit my overall knowledge on the women's game is limited, but I'm wondering if they have an opportunity now that the men are lacking.  For years I have been harping on the need for a much more synchronised global world calendar for men's rugby which, if done right, could be a silver bullet for a lot of the game's problems.

The women's game would definitely be in a much better position to make these changes now, and hopefully in doing so they could give nations like Ireland more competitive rugby at a level below the test one.  Some kind of Heineken Cup equivalent much surely be on the cards, and for me the most important aspect of the decision making process should be the realisation that the format doesn't have to exactly mirror that of the men's code.

And that doesn't just apply to club level.  For example...does the Women's Six Nations HAVE to take place at exactly the same time as the men's?  Maybe if it moved to a different time of year it might be easier to publicise?  And if travel is the issue, does the format HAVE to be a straight round robin between all six nations?  What about a 'World Cup' system played in a different nation every year with two pools of three or something like that?

Of course those are mere suggestions but I have always felt that the game as the whole needs to embrace this 'outside the box' thinking when looking to the future, and hopefully the women's game will find a way to improve that works for all nations, not just the ones at the top who are turning pro.


RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP

Finally a quick word on round two from the Rugby Championship.  I didn't even bother watching the All Blacks play the Wallabies and by all accounts that was a good call.  However, I very much enjoyed the Pumas against the Springboks later that evening.

There was some absolutely stunning rugby on display throughout with extremely high levels of accuracy particularly from Argentina...if they play like that when they come here in November they'll prove quite the handful.  That said, I'm wondering how much the frequency of line breaks throughout this match, not just by the home side I might add, was down to quick offloading and how much was down to poor defensive organisation.  We should find out at the Aviva Stadium.

Meanwhile back to this competition, as expected it is already a race for second place, though it could be a three-way race which I suppose could turn out to be interesting.  We'll learn a lot from round three when we see how Cheiks can restore his Wallabies' confidence as they host the Boks at the Suncorp.  I might just sleep in that morning for NZ v Arg as well.


That's all we have for Harpin Points this week.  Stay tuned to our Facebook page Thursday as the teams are announced for Cardiff v Leinster and also after the fulltime whistle to leave your thoughts.  As always, be sure to enjoy your rugby wherever you are.
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