Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Harpin' Points : Neutral refs, Pro 14 final, All Ireland League


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

NEUTRAL REFS

Both of Leinster's opening two Pro14 matches for the new season are away to Welsh clubs.

You might think that I'm opening with that fact because I think it's somehow unfair to Leinster.  On the contrary...I actually think it's a good thing for everyone involved.  It could arguably assure both Cardiff Blues and Scarlets biggish gates, it would provide our September squad an excellent challenge, and from the league's point of view, it wouldn't be the end of the world for us not to have a 100% record from the opening couple of weeks (I'm not saying we have no chance of winning both, it just won't be easy given both regions have enjoyed success in recent times).

No, actually my problem with these fixtures stems from something on which I have been harping for many seasons; now that the league spans five nations, IMO referees should always come from a neutral nation. 

The IRFU and WRU supply four teams each to the competition, which makes for a total 32 cross-union matches in the regular season.  I get that it's a lot and that perhaps the pool of eligible refs isn't what it should be standard-wise from the other nations, but if we end up seeing the likes of John Lacey, George Clancy and Peter Fitzgibbon holding the whistle for Leinster's trips to Cardiff and Llanelli, it will show that little or no progress has been made in this area.

You might say that the priority should be on the quality of referees rather than focusing on where they come from.  And I wouldn't completely disagree with that view. However, we spend so much time debating the referees' performances anyway, I'd argue that the very least we can do it remove the possibility of national bias, more for their sake than anyone else's. 

I guess my view comes from the adage : "Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done."

And remember, when I say 'bias' I don't just mean and Irish ref favouring an Irish side...there can be a case made for the same ref going too far the other way trying NOT to show bias, and this is just as bad.  For me, the best answer is to have a blanket policy of neutral refs for every match involving different unions.

So if our matches against the Blues and Scarlets end up being handled by the likes of Mike Adamson, Marius Mitrea and Stuart Berry, I'll be a happy blogger...right up until the match kicks off when I'll be a moany fan like all the rest 😜


PRO 14 FINAL

The Celtic League went to 'nominated venue' finals for the 2014/15 season, when it was held in Belfast.  The following season it was at Murrayfield.  Then it was at the Aviva Stadium.  Then it was at the Aviva Stadium again this year.

We recently discovered that the 2018/19 final will be at Glasgow Celtic's ground, and much of the narrative surrounding the announcement focused on the fact that it's a non-rugby ground.  For this Harpin' Point I'd like to focus on the fact that it's a non-Welsh ground???

This league was formed because Ireland, Scotland and Wales could not sustain domestic club competitions on their own to match those in England and France.  It should go without saying that in five years of nominated-venue finals, each of those three Celtic nations should have been represented at least once, right?

Well we all know what the problem is here, or at least we should.  It has to do with the twitter hashtag #ItsThePro14sFault.  Despite the fact that regions have won as many as six championships since the competition began in 2000, Welsh fans have never really gotten on board. 

Perhaps that is because they would rather watch their own clubs play each other?  Perhaps they would rather join the Premiership? (IMO that will never wash with Premier League Rugby because it would create the possibility of all of its member clubs going trophyless in a given season)  Or perhaps they just don't like the fact that the Irish have adjusted to professional rugby much better at provincial/regional level? (IMO that's not entirely anyone's credit/fault as we had a clear marketing advantage with four ready-made provinces).

Whatever the reasoning, having three finals in Ireland and two in Scotland over five years is not a good look for a five-nation competition.  I understand why Italy and South Africa would be difficult venues logistically, but if this policy is to really work, then the 2019/20 showpiece HAS to be in Wales, and it even wouldn't hurt to announce it now to show they're serious about spreading the competition around the Celtic nations.

If this can't be guaranteed, and my 'hot take' is that it can't, then the league will have to look to scrapping the nominated-venue policy because to resort to Ireland or Scotland yet again would be leaning towards farcical. 

An alternative could be awarding the final to an 'outside the box' venue like Bilbao, Berlin, Barcelona, Boston or perhaps somewhere that doesn't begin with B.

For me, better options would be rewarding the reigning league champions with the following year's final (a bit like the Eurovision?) or better still, return to the method they used when the league first switched to a playoff system, namely choosing venue based on regular-season seeding.

SUPER RUGBY SEMIFINALS

Last week I harped on the Super Rugby format...this time around I'd like to focus on the overall standard of rugby in the competition.  Over the weekend just gone the two semifinals were played as the Crusaders and Lions reached Saturday's final at the expense of the Hurricanes and Waratahs respectively.

On the meeting of the two New Zealand franchises in Christchurch, well I have to say it was an amazing 80 minutes of rugby to watch.  The Hurricanes played at such a level that I reckon they could have beaten any other club in the competition.  Sean Fitzpatrick said on Sky before kickoff that this probably should have been the final and he had a point.

But then we get to the Crusaders...man, they were just unbelievable.  What caught my eye most of all was the lightning quick speed of thought in transition.  No sooner would a Hurricane attack go awry than you'd see a perfect formation of red jerseys heading in the other direction, all knowing exactly where to run, pass or receive.

Not that the Lions v Tahs match was disappointing.  The Aussies hit their hosts with two early tries but if you're going to overcome both the long journey and energy-sapping Ellis Park altitude factor, you probably need more than a 14-point head start, especially against a Lions team which has now reached three finals in a row, even if that was with a bit of help from the competition's format.

Hands down the try of the day was from Aphinwe Dyanti...deep inside his own half, little chip to himself and then he turns on the afterburners to beat the Tahs backfield with ease.

Of course whenever I harp on Super Rugby, I am always drawn to two themes.  The first is that it is tragic that the attendances are so poor.  Given the quality on show you'd think the stadiums would be jam packed, and the competition is in a bit of a marketing dilemma because if they shift to a smaller venue they can't really justify the use of the word 'Super'!!!

Another problem is the high scoring.  Many fans think that's a good thing, but not defensive nerds like myself.  Every year the notion of a playoff between the Champions Cup and Super Rugby champions is brought up, and assuming the Crusaders win on Saturday as they are favoured to, you won't need me to convince you that a matchup between them and Leinster would be absolutely awesome.  The Saders' current attack against our current D would be a matchup of the ages.

The 'mouth-watering' prospect has one caveat for me, however...it would only be worthwhile if the teams could meet at exactly the same stage of their seasons, and seeing how the world calendar is set up now, I'm not so sure that can ever happen.  What I'm saying is that I hope the blazers don't try to force such a game into existence without ensuring it was as competitive as possible.

THE BEST RUGBY XV EVER...

Few rugby debates are as impossible to decide as those over 'fantasy lineups'.  "What's your greatest XV ever?"  "Who would make the Lions if it were selected now?"  "Pick the best team of players who's surnames begin with K."

You've already started the K thing, haven't you?  Go on, feel free to work on that for a while, we'll still be here when you get back...

One common theme among these debates is that for every combination of fifteen rugby players you produce, you will never, ever, receive a comment from a fellow fan that reads "ah, yes, that is exactly the XV I would have chosen, well done".  And I'm not saying that's a bad thing...if everyone agreed about everything, there'd be no point in my typing this post!!!

Anyway...on Monday I published a post where I looked at Leinster's squad ahead of the 2018/19 season and my goal was to come up with an 'ideal XV' assuming all the players were match fit.  Man, it was tough.  When I got to our second row, I couldn't find a way to separate Devin Toner and James Ryan.  But then I'd have to leave out Scott Fardy, which I also couldn't do, so I moved him to 6.  But then I wanted to include Sean O'Brien as my captain, so I had him at 8.  Every decision I made would have been pinged for a knock on.

Naturally there was a lot of disagreement with my selection, and like I said above, that is all part of the great debate.  But here's the thing...looking back over it, after just a couple of days, now even I want to change it!!!  I regret leaving out Joe Tomane.  I still can't put him in the centre as I want the 'Henrose' pairing together, and I can't find room for him on the wings because I have reasons for putting both Lowe and Larmour there, so he ends up on my bench at the expense of a very unlucky Fergus McFadden.  Ferg has more use as a starter IMO and will do more great things for Leinster this season, possibly Ireland as well.

I'd probably best wrap up this point before I change my mind again!!!!


ALL IRELAND LEAGUE

I see the fixtures for the All Ireland League have been published, and as always I wish clubs all around the country the best of luck for the new season.  However, as always I have concerns about the structure of the club system and I wonder is the Irish game really getting the full benefit.

There's no doubt the IRFU has a difficult task coming up with a system that both keeps all the clubs happy AND affords decent game time for fringe players from the provinces.  But still, despite numerous format changes over the years, it is a challenge that has not been properly tackled, though that may be about to change.

Back in June new changes were announced and I have to say I'm impressed.  There's a strong possibility a lot of clubs particularly at the bottom end of things won't be, and I hope those reservations will eventually be addressed, but it was very important that something was done.

Essentially what we now know as Divisions 1A and 1B will become a Premiership and a Championship and there will be a separation between those and the remaining divisions in that at a minimum of two spots at that level will be ringfenced for each province.

It also looks like the coaches for the new league will have a better chance of keeping their squads together without having them raided as often by provincial A team coaches.

Assuming all of the above can be made work, I'm fully behind the format, and hopefully a TV network will show some interest in following the competition regularly from start to finish as well to provide a bit of extra cash, for which hopefully all clubs would see some benefit.



That's all for this week...as always feel free to share your thoughts on today's topics, or any you'd like us to feature next week, using your social media platform of choice.  JLP
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