Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Harpin Points 20 - Promoting Pro14 Promotion, a Leinster 'Namesake XV' & more


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

PROMOTING PRO14 PROMOTION

Each time Leinster scores a big win (and apologies for gloating but it seems to be happening a lot these days), questions get asked about the gulf in standards in the Pro14.

Whether it was Italian clubs we were beating shortly after they joined the competition, or more recently the South Africans, or even the Dragons…when they receive a tonking, the old chestnut of ‘promotion’ being introduced gets dragged out, so let's  a look at it shall we.

In general, I'd be for it. Of course you should be punished for finishing at or near the bottom of a league, and dropping down a division has proven the best way to do that throughout European sport.

But with the Pro14 project comes certain complications. It involves a merger of five unions (with hopefully more to come, I'd love to see the likes of Georgia involved) each of which has to sell the league back home, and particularly in the case of the FIR and SARU, they have to compete with Serie A and Super Rugby respectively as they try to persuade punters this product is worthwhile.

Plus there's the fact that both of those unions actually pay to play in the league which makes the situation far from straightforward.

Taking the above reasons into account, I really don't think a straight up two-tiered format would work for this particular league, even if as rumoured two US teams join next season which would provide a tidy pair of 8-team divisions.

For one thing, from an Irish standpoint such a format creates the possibility of fewer inter-pros on the calendar, should one of the provinces have an off-season.   However this could be sorted by a few rounds of ‘inter-divisional’ games like they do in New Zealand's Mitre 10 Cup.

But also I feel at least one playoff berth should go to the lower tier, ensuring that all clubs began the season with an opportunity to be champions.

If tweaks such as those could be added, I definitely believe it's something that should be looked into.  More fixtures for the likes of Leinster and Munster against the likes of Scarlets and Glasgow would definitely be better for the league, while if (with all due respect) the Dragons, Kings and Zebre faced each other more often they'd have more victories to celebrate.

We'll see what gets announced at the end of this season for next year's competition.


MY POSITION ON POSITIONS - 11

In my latest look at the 15 Irish jerseys I have reached the wing, and I'm going to take a similar approach to that I used with the second row. Because while there are clear technical differences between the roles of the positions on either side of the pitch, in most ways they can be interchangeable, so what I'll do with jersey 11 is look at Joe's presumptive starters and on 14 cover all the available alternatives.

First, a quick look at the evolution of the winger’s role itself. “Back in my day” I was a prop in schools rugby, so my contribution could not have been more opposite to that of the lads wearing 11 & 14.

Come every full-time whistle, if I had five touches of the ball it would have been a good day, although none of them would be intentional as I was coached to ignored the egg-shaped thing at all costs. Plus, on muddy days my kit would always end up looking like I played for the ‘All Browns’.

By contrast, not only would the wingers be the ones to score most of our tries, their kit looked good enough to be used in an ad for Persil. As you can see, a teeny tiny part of my bitterness still remains 😉.

In simplest terms, the smallest quickest guy was stuck out on the wing so that his team mates could create enough space for him to sprint around his opposite number to the try line; it was a simple enough concept.

Joe Schmidt himself was mostly a slight winger in his day's playing NPC rugby for Manawatu. But as the game went pro, the standard size, shape and role of the outside men was to change dramatically, and of course one man in particular epitomised this speedy evolution - the late, great Jonah Lomu.

Why bother yourself wasting time trying to get around your opponents when you can go through him? And along with Lomu's greatness came a reluctance for any test nations to follow suit in naming big men for the wide channels, with Rory Underwood being a famous example of such a mismatch.

Yet while some of the smaller guys like Shane Williams still made it big in the professional game, in general most were going for the larger models, even in Ireland when Shane Horgan came to prominence.

So now when the ball gets out wide we have to find different ways to advance, partly because the players were bigger but also professionalism has made the available space even more limited.

Which brings us to ‘Schmidt-ball’. More often than not his wingers will cut inside against the grain of a drifting D to look for a line break and even if it isn't there, he'll fully expect his 12 & 13 to be there in support to help recycle.

Or, if there does seem to be a bit of space beyond his opposite number, rather running around him, he'd back himself to put the ball into that space and not only chase it down, but also fight like blazes to get it back.

Naturally I'm not saying that wingers never score tries the ‘old-fashioned way’, it's just that more ways have been found to get them involved. And for Ireland right now, the two men that fit Joe's bill the best are Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale, and I for one have no argument with either.

At the start of Joe's reign I got the impression that Earlsy was reluctant to drink the Kool Aid. He's the kind of character that tends to back his own instincts and that's not the worst quality for a wide man to have. But now it seems their two approaches have somehow merged, meaning Earls is playing the rugby of his life and demands selection when fit. He's also a handy experienced head to have in the dressing room, having been a Lion as far back as 2009.

On the other end of the scale, Stockdale is still relatively a newbie, yet I reckon this has been used by Joe to his advantage by taking the Ulsterman's size, speed and talent to mould into exactly the kind of winger he wants.

For me we saw the best example of this training recently against the All Blacks when despite being lucky to get away with failure to lob the ball over Kieran Read minutes earlier, on the next opportunity he backed himself to do it again leading to the match-winning try.

Maybe a lot can change between now and RWC2019, but definitely going into the 2019 Six Nations, if these two lads are fit, they should be starting IMO.


WEAKENED FOR A WEEKEND

Blackadder: Well go out into the street and hire me a horse.
Baldrick: Hire you a horse? For ninepence? On Jewish New Year in the rain? A bare fortnight after the dreaded horse plague of Old London Town? With the blacksmith's strike in its 15th week and the Dorset Horse Fetishist's Fair tomorrow? 

Normally I don't need an excuse to reach for a Blackadder quote, especially one from my favourite episode ‘Amy and Amiability’ in 'the Third' season.

This time it was brought to mind by the selection Edinburgh sent over to Cork for their Pro14 clash with Munster last Friday night.

With the Scots doing so well under the guidance of Richard Cockerill, this looked on paper as though it was going to be a classic encounter…unless that paper happened to be a team sheet.

As Johan van Graan was able to welcome back the likes of Conor Murray and Chris Farrell to a near full strength lineup, Embra went in the exact opposite direction, fielding a mostly unknown 23 and not surprisingly the home side practically had the bonus point wrapped up before all the fans at Irish Independent Park had taken their seats.

This led to much consternation from some Munster fans on social media…to be fair, I was a bit annoyed myself considering this was meant to be the centrepiece of my Friday evening's TV viewing with the Late Late Toy Show due to start immediately after.

But when I thought about the many mitigating circumstances faced by Cockerill in assembling his matchday squad, it seemed to make perfect sense…

  • Away match
  • 5-day turnaround from previous match v Dragons (also away)
  • Injuries
  • SRU-mandated rest for internationals
  • A massive back-to-back series v Newcastle up next in a very competitive European pool

And in perhaps the most relevant point of all, we must do something I often try to demand of my readers…step outside the Irish rugby bubble and look back in for a moment. 

Whether right or wrong, for what practise are the provinces most notorious? Breaking out the cotton wool for our best players, that's what. So perhaps it could be seen as a bit rich for us to complain when others do it, especially given how successful Irish teams have been under Player management?

But even without the ironic element, given all of the factors Edinburgh had going, I can't blame them. After two rounds a home European quarterfinal is within their reach and that's too big a financial incentive to ignore.

While some might argue that failing to compete for Pro14 match points could well hamper your chances of qualifying for the following year's Champions Cup, I guess that may be true to an extent. But IMO given there are still 11 rounds left to qualify, it's a worthwhile risk.

As I have harped extensively before, actions like Edinburgh's are a natural result of the stop-start nature of the European rugby calendar and nothing less.  If our competitions could be played in blocks, this wouldn't be an issue.


BACK TO BACK

I often moan in this column about the way the rugby blazers like to copy formats and structures from soccer just because it works in that game, but occasionally the imitation works in our favour, with the upcoming “back to back” series of matches being an example.

Eighty minutes of hard-hitting rugby can often lead to intense personal battles all over the pitch, yet once the full time whistle blows it could be months before any scores can be settled. And before the Heineken Cup came along, only test series offered the possibility of instant retribution.

But when we borrowed the 4-team format from the Champions League, what came with it was the way they do their fixtures.

Apparently the reason they have the same match ups for rounds 3 and 4 (as opposed to simply having everyone play each other for the first 3 rounds then reversing the order of fixtures) is that it's the best way to ensure an even spread of home and away matches for all of the competing teams.

And when you add in the fact that in our European competition the pools are played in 3 2-week blocks, it means that everyone is home and away in each one.

So what all of that technical nerdiness means is that every December we're treated to a fascinating two weeks of top match ups followed by re-match ups.

I guess since I had my usual moan about the European rugby calendar in my previous Harpin Point, it wouldn't hurt to find something positive in the next one 😉.


THE SAME NAME GAME

The more the tries rained in at Rodney Parade last Saturday, the more the mind would wander. 

"Jaysus, Leinster has four Byrne's on the pitch right now!  To go with the two O'Brien's!!!"

Ironically at the time we were playing one of the regions, which tend to have an array of similar names on show, though to be fair on this occasion the Dragons' count was rather low (2 Williams and 1 Evans)

So given it has been a while since I came up with a themed rugby XV selection, I tried to set about constructing a full Leinster 'Namesake XV'.

I came into a bit of trouble in the forwards - it would have been easier if Mike McCarthy and Jordi Murphy were still at the province - so I had to take a few liberties like using first names as well as last.

So the rule I landed on was that you only made the cut if at least one of the other 14 players shared one of your names.

But given how well Leinster's 'young guns' have done in recent weeks, I think few would argue this selection would give anyone a run for their money...

Leinster “Namesake XV”  : 15 Rob KEARNEY 14 Dave KEARNEY 13 Jimmy O’BRIEN 12 Conor O’BRIEN 11 Adam BYRNE 10 Ross BYRNE 9 Luke McGRATH
1 JACK MCGRATH 2 Bryan BYRNE 3 MICHAEL Bent 4 MICHAEL KEARNEY 5 SCOTT Fardy 6 Sean O'BRIEN  7 SCOTT Penny 8 JACK Conan


Thanks as always for sticking with me through my latest rambles.   We'll be back Thursday with upcoming rugby on Irish TV before setting up for the weekend's European action.  Due stay tuned! JLP

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