Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Harpin Points 16 : South African teams, open sides, USA trips

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


Last Sunday we saw an interesting Pro 14 double header as the two South African sides hosted Leinster and Munster respectively, and ironically both produced similar results as the provinces earned maximum match points while the home sides earned two as consolation for themselves.

Once again big wins for Irish teams hs raised the question in some social media circles as to whether or not the South African sides are “adding anything” to the league.

Well first and foremost, they are definitely adding something useful to the tune of cold hard cash courtesy of the SARU to the Celtic Nations, just as the FIR do for the Italian clubs. This has to be remembered every time we are able to keep players like Conor Murray in the Irish system when surely they must be getting offers from abroad.

Then there's the Italian clubs themselves. We had the same arguments every time we scored big wins over them but the only sticking point back then was the fact that they had European spots ring fenced for that's gone and although neither has ever really challenged for the Pro14 playoffs they have gradually improved their standards over the years.

Then there's the conference system, which I really like. Personally I'd prefer if they were done more on geographical lines than arbitrary ones but still it generates a lot of extra intrigue and mini rivalries about the league.

Next up is the valuable experience….think of what the trip to South Africa meant for the many youngsters in Leinster's squad last weekend? While it's very possible that many of them will go on to travel with test sides in the future, this extra journey certainly did them no harm.

But despite all those extra reasons why the Cheetahs and Kings help the Pro 14, I still go back to the one about the extra cash. We have to compete with the Premiership and Top 14 and if other unions are willing to pay their way in and we can make it work, which I believe we are, then so be it.


Each week I look at Ireland's options in a different Jersey number, and there's a sad irony that it happens to be open side flanker this time due to the announcement of Chris Henry's retirement.

There can be little doubt that playing in the back row can involved the most physical demands on players at the highest level, and this has been borne out by a high amount of injury layoffs, sabbaticals and early retirements.

Chris Henry always gave his all for both Ulster and Ireland. I'm not sure he'd be starting in green with everyone fit, but he certainly could slot in when required. Of course everyone in the rugby family wishes him all the best for the future.

As I said last week when discussing the 6 jersey, the back row positions can be interchangeable and of all the Irish stars I reckon Sean O’Brien fits the bill the most, He made his name as a blindside carrier type but has been used cross the positions over the years and if I had to put him in and Irish XV I'd definitely have him at 7 or 8 to make sure POM was our 6. Jordi Murphy is another who is handily versatile.

But when it comes to the more traditional, breakdown-patrolling, turnover-seeking missile 7s, Leinster have unearthed two absolute gems in recent years in Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy. They have also fallen foul of injuries in their young careers to date, but when fit you really can't take your eyes of them for tenacity, work rate and efficiency when they're in action.

Tommy O’Donnell is another who would be be up for consideration yet finds himself on the treatment table all too often. But blame my blue goggles if you must, with everyone fully fit, I'd have either Josh or Dan wearing 7 even if that meant leaving Seanie on the bench.


Was the trip to Chicago to play Italy worth it? My argument would be very similar to this week's first Harpin Point about the Italian teams.

First and foremost, it had to be lucrative for both FIR an IRFU. Many pointed out that it was far from a full crowd, but no matter how big the Italian and Irish communities might be in the Windy City, did anyone really expect a full house for rugby even with both the men's and women's USA teams playing on the same day? Wasn't gonna happen. But I still reckon they got some decent coin out of it.

And as I said in my writeup, despite the big winning margin it was far from a pointless exercise for Joe Schmidt & co. When the World Cup comes around we'll need to use as much of our squad as possible for matches against the likes of Japan and Samoa and this second string Italian side helped us do a decent dress rehearsal.

That said, I never like to see both Leinster and Ireland playing on the same weekend, and not just because it doubles my workload either! In an ideal rugby world with an ideal rugby calendar there should only ever be one in action on any given weekend IMO. If we as fans want to take in a second game, we can maybe go support the AIL.


Speaking of too much rugby in one weekend, last week the fixtures were announced for the Women's and Under 20 versions of the Six Nations for 2019. As is always the case their schedule mirrors that of the Senior Men's competition.

Last season I wa commissioned to write an article on the weekend when Italy's men, women and juniors played at Donnybrook and Aviva Stadium… It involved going to matches on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Obviously being the Irish rugby nut I am, I had no quibble with doing this but looking at it like a regular punter, is it realistic to expect fans to go watch all of them every time?

I appreciate that one advantage of grouping them in the same weekend is that it saves on travel for the away fixtures…you'd assume all three squads would share a plane.

But still in an ideal world I wonder if the ‘off weekends’ at Six Nations time could be used to host these matches, or perhaps rather than mirroring the format of the men's competition maybe have a shorter ‘World Cup’ style version in a host country with two pools of three and a final, even at a different point of the season if necessary?

To be fair, attendances at these matches is normally decent enough but I do wonder if sometimes the calendar forces fans to miss matches they would genuinely like to attend.


Although Ireland posted an impressive ‘fifty burger’ against the Italians on Saturday, there was a long spell in the first half without any kind of a score, and if like me you tend to follow your twitter time line during a match, you may have noticed that Irish fans were caught up in a narrative about Luke Fitzgerald colour commentary on eir Sport. Apparently he used too many words or something?

Well you might assume I'll jump to his defence because of the whole Blackrock College and Leinster connection, but while I'm convinced that's the reason why the premise caught on so quickly as there are many fans who'd love to have a reason to slag off someone like him, that's not really the reason I was ‘meh’ about the whole thing.

My impression of Luke as a Pundit is that he was given advise to be more animated when he spoke. He always struck me as more of a serious type of person when giving interviews, and while there's absolutely nothing wrong with that normally, if you're trying to craft a media persona it's far from ideal.

So what he seems to be doing now is going out of his way to be animated and to my eye anyway, his hand gestures and facial expressions seem a bit forced. But on Saturday, he wasn't in front of the camera and was being judged for what he was actually saying while the action was taking place.

When I'm covering match for our weekly Monday match writeup, I always watch it twice…first as a fan, then as a nerd note-taker for the article. I have to say that on neither occasion did I think he was saying anything unusual, but that said, I was much more interested in what was happening on the pitch to notice what the commentators were actually saying.

So I guess what I'm ring to say is…IMO there's nothing wrong with the vocal, but maybe he can dial back the visual.

That's it for this week's Harpin Points.  Stay tuned for upcoming rugby on Irish TV.  JLP


Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019