Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Harpin Points 10 : World League, Ireland's loose heads, and more


Every Wednesday we widen our focus beyond Leinster & Ireland rugby matches, offering views on broader rugby topics and themes

WORLD LEAGUE WISE?

The times, they are a-changin'.

When Bill Beaumont and Agustin Pichot became chair and vice-chair respectively of the World Rugby Council in 2017, their views on making significant alterations to the game were widely known.  Now we seem to be getting close to finding out exactly what they plan to do.

According to this article at WalesOnline, these are among the proposed changes...

  • A 39% increase in Tier One v Tier Two games
  • Player welfare reforms
  • Summer Test window moved from June to July (or scrapped?)
  • November and Rugby World Cup windows reset (a new competition?)
  • Possible changes to the Six Nations and Lions tours
  • International residency period raised from three to five years
For this Harpin Point, I'd like to look at the November proposal in particular, though a lot of the above points are connected to each other in many ways.

Apparently the notion of a "World League" stems from something European football's governing body UEFA has recently introduced called the "Nations League" which is a competition designed to replace a host of meaningless friendlies.

To be clear from the outset, I'd like to state that I'm overall in favour of the idea of some kind of World League.  However, I do have reservations, and first and foremost among them is that it drives me bonkers every time rugby bends over backwards to model the structure of the game to parrot what their round ball counterparts do.

And it's not as though I'm one of those rugby fans who belittles soccer and calls it things like as 'wendyball' either...I am over the age of ten after all, and what's more, I have been known to enjoy watching a game or two when I have the time (Come On You Boys In Green/Spurs).  

My objection to the copying is purely practical.  They are different sports, with different needs for players and different expectations of fans.  Basing our tournament infrastructure on what the likes of FIFA and UEFA do is like forcing an oval ball into a round hole.  (I hear you snickering down the back....yes, I see it too, but again...I'm over ten 😜)  We don't have to use names like 'Premiership', a 'Championship', or 'Champions Cup/League' (we even use an anthem for ours like they do???)...in fact I'm not 100% convinced our World Cup even necessarily has to be every four years though that's a debate for another day.

When it comes to competitive matches in November, we have to appreciate that in rugby we rarely consider them to be 'meaningless friendlies'.  They are full-on Test matches, and that word means something in our sport.

HOWEVER...I'd like to direct your attention to the first point listed above about the need for more inclusion of 'Tier Two' nations.  If you're not willing to accept that rugby union still suffers from a massive case of "Tier One Bubble Syndrome" (TOBS?) then there's no point even trying to have a debate on this.

But for the rest of us, we have to appreciate that surely one of the premier goals of an organisation known as "World Rugby" is to burst that bubble.  To facilitate the growth of the game in as many different countries as possible, and to allow them every opportunity of rising in the world rankings all the way to the top ten if that's where they have the ability to go.

And let's face it, whenever the November planning comes around the way things stand now, although Tier One nations do throw the next one down the odd bone in terms of fixtures, it really is only the odd one.  Just look at Ireland's schedule for this season...Italy, New Zealand, Argentina, USA.  Which one of those grabs you the least?

So one way to increase the involvement of Tier Two nations would be to introduce competitive play that would leave fixture-arranging to ping-pong balls being randomly removed from a drum as opposed to national rugby unions colluding to maximise their gate.

That said, what I'm hearing on the grapevine is that the plan is for a 'World League' to comprise only the top 12 nations in the rankings.   This would clearly serve to exclude most Tier 2 teams at first, but what might get me on board would be some kind of promotion and relegation system offering the next 12 teams a chance to step up?

Of course there's one big problem with that notion...would Ireland, Australia, Wales or any of the top nations be willing to put themselves in a position where a couple of bad results in November means they have to drop down a rung and be denied any matches at all against fellow Tier Ones?


The only thing I can say with relative certainty is that when Messrs Beaumont & Pichot finally unveil their plan, not everyone is going to be happy.


MY POSITION ON POSITIONS - 1

Now that I have more time this season to watch the other provinces, I feel like I can start to make reasonable assessments of the form of players qualified for Ireland, so starting this week I'm going to use one Harpin point to have a look at different positions with relation to the Ireland team and see how our talent pool is shaping up.

Whether I'm starting with loose head prop because I used to be one or because the shirt number happens to be 1, you can decide for yourself.

Anyway, I'll kickoff each of these with my expectations for the position in question.  And for this one, those are a hell of a lot different to what they were 'back in my day'.

Basically the main advice I'd get from coaches was "you're a prop, lad...the last thing you ever need to be worrying about in a match is the ball."  If I ever saw a chance to pick it up and run with it, I should resist that urge and instead drive over it for someone else to do the work.  The only times I was directly involved in the play was at setpieces, especially scrums of course.

Since the professional age came along, all of that has changed.  Props have to be able to prop, make no mistake about that.  But they also have to be lifters.  Carriers.  Offloaders. Tacklers.  Jacklers.  And they will be judged on all of them every bit as much as the 'scrum stuff'.

Right now Ireland's presumptive 'uimhir a haon' to wear 'uimhir a haon' has to be Cian Healy.  It may not have always been thus for him - having risen to the top quickly, a dip in form saw him overtaken both at provincial and test level by Jack McGrath, but overall that's a good thing and he knuckled down to fight his way back to where he is now.

Just last Saturday he was named man of the match against Edinburgh...I may have disagreed in my writeup but the fact remains Church had some barnstorming carries including one which saw him pirouette several times in succession while still knowing which way was forward.

Another thing about him is his attitude.  There's a perfect mix of cockiness and competitiveness to match his talents - to put it simply, when fit he's just the guy you want on the pitch for you for that position.

But the prevailing 'feature of this feature' known as 'my position on positions' is that for the sake of Ireland's chances at RWC2019, we'll need options.  Props in particular tend to only last 60 minutes, so we'll need more quality to come on for those vital closing stages in big matches,

Once he's fit to play again, Jack McGrath is the obvious candidate for the 17 jumper.  Also versatile around the park, his Ireland displays are best remembered (by me anyway) for his involvement in our plan to overcome lineout mauls by standing off them allowing him to run around the back and tackle the attacking player holding the ball.  That loophole seems to have been closed but he still contributes in many other ways.

From Connacht I reckon Denis Buckley has been unlucky not to get a look in at Carton House.  Every time I have seen him play he has been involved in a lot of good things, particularly defensively by locking down over the ball and forcing turnovers.  Up at Ulster there's Andrew Warwick, to be honest I've yet to see enough to know if he's in the frame though it doesn't look like he's cracking the top 5 for the time being.

But in case you think I'm avoiding Munster because of my blue goggles, you can think again.   In fact, when it comes to an Irish front row, I can't think past three names...Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery and John Hayes.  That trio ticks all the boxes for the 1,2,3 positions in my book and if they could come back in their prime, they'd walk straight into my Ireland team without question.

So what I'd say about Munster is that one of their biggest problems since their glory days at the end of the 'noughties' is that they have struggled to come close to finding a front row like that one.  James Cronin has shown himself to be worthy of a Joe call up it's true, but of all the loose heads that have worn red in recent times, the only one I'd go for is Dave Kilcoyne.

He seems a different type of person to Church, though that's not saying one is better than the other.  However, they do seem very similar in terms of attitude.  In stark contrast to the coaching advice I got in times of yore, DK wants - nay demands - the ball.   If I had to pick an Ireland team right now, I might actually have him at 17 ahead of McGrath.

So all I have said above means there could well be very interesting sub plots at the loose head position when Leinster play first Connacht and then Munster.  No doubt I'll have a thing or two to say about it in my writeups.

Meanwhile this series moves on to next week when I'll have a look at Ireland's options at the hooker position.

MAKING PENALTIES COUNT

When writing up the Leinster v Edinburgh game I spent so much time harping on the James Lowe try that I was afraid to make the piece too much of a 'love in' and in my desire to make the rest less so, I forgot to mention that over the eighty minutes we conceded just three penalties, an outstanding figure of which any coach would be proud.

That realisation put me in mind of something that has been bugging me for a while.  That figure for 'penalties conceded' clearly refers to those that were actually awarded, and my question for this Harpin Point is...does that stat give us all the information we need?

Often we see situations during a match when an attacking team is either pummelling the opposition try-line with a series of 'one-out runner' carries, or revving up a maul to steamroller over the line that way.   If the ref sees an infringement by the defending team yet the play can still continue, he puts his arm out for the advantage as we all know.  So a penalty offence has been committed, but if the attacking team gets the ball down over the line, the actual penalty itself is normally not awarded.

I believe that penalty offence should somehow be reflected in the official match stats.  And that's not just out of some nerdy OCD desire for pedantry, either.  I actually believe it can affect the course of a match.

Since rugby introduced the yellow card system, a lot of offences can tempt one out of a ref's pocket on their own, particularly if they are dangerous or fall under the heading of a 'professional foul'.  But another way the officials use them is for repeated offences, and this is why I think we need to have a look at unused advantages.

How often have we heard refs say something akin to 'there have been too many penalties' in such a way as to imply that if there are any more, the offending player will see yellow?  Well, what if there is an unused advantage?  Should the warning come with a caveat that a penalty offence in a move that ends up as a try anyway doesn't count?  Personally, I don't think so.

A relatively recent match that had me thinking of this issue was Ireland's second test in Melbourne last June.  Referee Paul Williams gave Wallaby skipper Michael Hooper a warning in the first half for too many penalties, yet towards the end he said to him :


"...you actually got a handle on a number of penalties before, now it's starting to roll again"

...which implies the initial warning comes with the chance of earning some kind of 'clean slate' even though in this match, both of Ireland's tries were scored with a penalty advantage so there were more opportunities for the ref to take out his yellow card for repeated offences than the match stats suggest.

What I would recommend would be for brackets after the stats number under 'penalties conceded' to allow for advantages given, to give us a more complete picture.  And as one fellow stat nerd suggested when we discussed this around the time of that Melbourne test, it is very conceivable that coaches like Joe Schmidt keep a close eye on numbers like that anyway.


A CASE IN (BONUS) POINT

One thing I never expected when I came up with the idea for these posts is that I'd have to keep revisiting previous editions to upgrade certain Harpin Points based on new "evidence" that has since come to light.

Back in HP5 I stated my preference for one way of earning the try bonus point over the other...
The one we're used to here in Ireland is one I call the 'Quantity Bonus Point' (or QBP) which means you have to score a certain number of tries, namely four, to earn the bonus.  But in the French Top14 for many years now, and in recent years in the Rugby Championship and Super Rugby, they have employed what I call the 'Differential Bonus Point' (or DBP) which means you only get the bonus if you get three more tries than your opposition.
Just last weekend, there was a match that gave a practical example of why I feel the DBP is better.  In Port Elizabeth, the Southern Kings caused an upset in the Pro14 when they overcame 2015 champions and last season's Conference A table-toppers the Glasgow Warriors by 38-28, and I'd like to focus on how the scoring went in relation to the try bonus point.

The Kings got their fourth try on 53 minutes before the Warriors had even gotten one.  It put them 31-0 ahead, making it highly unlikely that Glasgow would come back to win.  Now the Warriors did hit back with two tries of their own, but then the Kings got a 5th to totally kill the match from a result standpoint...HOWEVER the Scots managed to get tries in both the 77th and 80th minutes to get away with a bonus of their own.

For me, it's not fair that Glasgow were able to get themselves a point on the league table, because in all likelihood, their hosts couldn't have been arsed stopping them in those closing stages.  Not only were their five points in the bag, but given the Kings are in a different conference, Glasgow earning a point does not affect their standing at all.

I reckon teams like Ospreys, Munster and Connacht near the top of Conference A might care, though.

Now let's look at the match situation if the league used the DBP system.  When the Kings got their 5th try, Glasgow had 2, which put them in the bonus point position.  However, if they were to concede any further tries before the end without scoring themselves, that point would disappear, so that should motivate the home side to defend their line for those final eight minutes.

Also, the DBP virtually eliminates the possibility of a losing team getting a try bonus...I suppose it might be possible for a team to win 18-15 with 6 pens against 3 unconverted tries, but that's one hell of a stretch, right?  The only way Glasgow could have gotten a BP in that match would be if they got within 7 (or in France these days 5) points of their opponents.

So I say bring in the DBP in all competitions.  Now.

SOB STORIES?

Word has it that two backrows named Sean O'Brien could feature in the Connacht v Leinster match in Galway next Saturday, one for either team.  I'm sure the flame-haired Connacht player won't be too offended if the bulk of the media attention is on the Tullow Tank.

But what this Harpin Point wants to deal with is not just the nature of Sean's injury and career itself, rather more how clubs handle the news surrounding a player's availability.

Irish professional setups in particular have been known to keep the injury cards very close to their chest.  Leinster make an announcement pretty much every Tuesday after a match weekend, but one thing I see at other clubs yet not in Ireland is complete picture of the status of the entire squad released with the announcement of a matchday squad.

As well as the 23 selected for the particular match, you would also see listed a category that reads something like "Players unavailable", where everyone else in the squad would be named along with a brief explanation in brackets such as (knee injury, back 3-4 weeks) or (HIA protocols) or (Player protection programme).  Personally I don't think it's unreasonable to expect this level of detail.

I have to assume that there are valid reasons for the ambiguity...perhaps the club cannot confirm the status for a certain player, or perhaps they don't want to tip off future opponents too much about what their squad might look like, but in those cases I say...nobody said the figures in the brackets had to be 100% truthful? 

When it comes to Seanie, the lack of information surrounding the length of his absence or the timing of his return can only fuel speculation.  Basically I can't mention his name on the Facebook page lately without somebody leaving a comment suggesting he has to be about to retire.

Hopefully those assumptions are miles off the mark, and all I'm saying is that when it comes to reporting injuries "no news" leads to "guessed news" which overall is "bad news".  So in general it's better to throw us a bone instead, and offering some kind of status on every player in the squad for every team announcement is the best way to go IMO.

That's all for this week's Harpin Points.  Tomorrow we plan to have our popular 'telly post', then on Friday along with the Leinster team announcement and match preview, we're hoping to 'liveblog' Leinster A's Celtic Cup fixture against Ospreys from Donnybrook that evening.  Stay tuned!  JLP

Blog Archive