Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Harpin Points 22 -European calendars, slide tackles, crazy kits & more


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

BUILDING BLOCKS

I began my Leinster v Bath writeup by referencing my long-standing dislike for the European calendar structure so I figured I could use the next Harpin Points column to have another go at outlining the way I'd prefer it to be set up.

My primary issue is that for a complicated team sport like rugby union in particular, tournaments should be played to a finish before other ones begin, or to put in another way, played in “blocks”.

Instead we have a calendar that only looks ‘normal’ because it resembles what happens in soccer… just as they'd have league matches one week, cup matches the next, internationals the next and Champions League during the midweeks, rugby's competitions are all scattered throughout the season with finals in May and one big slice taken out of the the middle of the season to allow for the Six Nations.

Of course I don't think I'm the only one to notice this, and possible changes have been widely discussed over the years. And one thing is for sure, every possible solution has the potential to create several new problems so I can certainly appreciate the temptation to forge ahead with the status quo.

But I still believe blocks are the answer. For me, the longer coaches are able to keep the same squad of players together, the better the end product we see on the pitch.  When Leinster ‘only’ beat Bath by 7 points at the Rec recently, many put this down to our internationals having been away for November.  For me, that's not an acceptable excuse.

So what would I do?  Well one oft-mentioned idea which fascinates me is that of a British & Irish League, which as the name suggests would merge the Premiership with clubs from the Celtic nations. I'm assuming the intention would be that the Italian clubs could then somehow join the French pyramid structure for ease of travel and, well, maybe the South Africans would have to just go away?

That would certainly provide a better looking schedule for all involved…I’m sure English clubs wouldn't mind being guaranteed several visits from Irish provinces and with all due respect to the Benettons and Zebres, it can be a lot easier for us to get to places like The Rec and The Stoop.

However, would that not make a mockery of the Champions Cup?  Already it represents a merger of just three competitions, and as we recently saw when Gloucester v Exeter and Ulster v Scarlets featured in the ‘back to back’ series, it can make for a lot of repeat fixtures, so to have just two would make it seem farcical.

Basically my suggestion is that instead of merging two of the three tournaments, why not merge all three and have a pan-European League with a divisional structure?

Maybe a 16-team Premier division that begins with at least one from each union, yet with relegation to lower tiers, after a few seasons the real cream of the continent would be at the top.

I'd still have end-of season playoffs, though I'd want at least one of possibly eight slots to go to the second tier which would give more clubs the chance to be champions.

But in my opinion anyway, a 30-match schedule in the same league for all clubs would be better than the broken 22/26 + 6 that we currently have, and while with internationals they couldn't be played consecutively, they certainly could be broken up into much more manageable chunks of, say, 10 weeks.

Any rivals who find themselves in different divisions could accommodate their fans with a friendly either preseason or during international windows.

Just to be clear…I don't put forward that idea assuming I've ‘cracked it’ I just want to highlight the pitfalls I see with the structure we have now and would like to see a proper debate kept going.

Apparently World Rugby have a new test calendar cooking so we'll have to wait and see what comes out of the oven before we know what the club level will be left to work with. But it's fun coming up with ideas for nerds like me all the same!


MY POSITION ON POSITIONS - 13

Time for part 13 in our weekly series looking at the different positions on the Irish rugby team and who is likely to fill them in RWC2019.

‘Brian O’Driscoll’ comes from ancient Gaelic words meaning ‘outside centre’.  OK, maybe it doesn't, but once he burst onto the scene the 13 jersey was always his no matter who he played for, well, right up to the day Warren Gatland decided that it wasn't, that is.

He was at the forefront of a revolution in the sport, rising to senior level just as it went pro here in Ireland, thus being able to pioneer all the possibilities a full-time diet of rugby training, conditioning and analysis could bring to the game.

Eventually it got to the stage when we were so worried about not being able to replace them that we literally begged him to stay on for one more year!

Meanwhile before he hung up his boots we were always on the lookout for a natural successor…at Leinster there was Eoin O’Malley who certainly looked like he had a future before he was sadly forced to retire.

But one he eventually made his farewell,  there was Joe Schmidt ready to forge ahead with his plans for the post-BOD era.  He landed on Jared Payne, certainly not everyone's first choice but he wasn't long in showing exactly what he could bring to the role,  Fans had to park their regular expectations from an outside centre…he didn't focus as much on try-finishing, instead becoming a master of line-break preventing.

Then, as if to suggest there could be a curse on the Irish 13 similar to that associated with the number itself, Payne too was forced to retire, but by then, an all new talent had emerged, and this guy was one of a new crop that arrived at senior level all set for anything that could be thrown at them.

I remember that 2013 Leinster Schools Senior Cup final at the RDS for several reasons...most of all, a photo I took that day was one of the few things this site has produced that can truly be considered to have ‘gone viral’ online.

But another distinct memory from the occasion was that in the midst of Rock's narrow victory over Michael's, their outside centre took the placekicks and landed an amazing 8 out of 8 with some from the touchline.  Clearly we'd be seeing this Ringrose lad again.

His first few matches for Leinster were on the wing, as often with the case for youngsters finding their feet.  But he wasn't long moving over to the centre and now, when fit, that's where he plays for both province and country and few would dispute that.

The scariest thing about Gary “💍🌹” is that for all his natural rugby talent, I haven't seen a performance by either Leinster or Ireland that looks as though he is the focal point of the attacking strategy.  A bit like Payne, he'd knuckle down and guard his defensive channel and when an opportunity arose, you knew he could make the most of it.

All I can say is…imagine the kind of output we'll get from him if and when the day comes that he IS the focal point and several attacking plays are designed around him?

Luckily over the past couple of seasons we have had the opportunity to explore alternatives for when he's not available…Robbie Henshaw can move over and Aki can play 12, or the former Connacht pair can do the reverse, and also Chris Farrell has been able to hold up his hand.

But like I say, when fit it must always be Garry and I'd be very surprised if he hasn't played himself into strong Lions-starting contention by the time the next tour comes around.


SLIDE RULES

Speaking of BOD, as we all know he's a pundit these days and I have to say it's taking me a while to warm to him in that role, not because I think he's necessarily bad, more that I don't see him offering the general discussion too much, opting more often than not to ‘play it safe’ IMO.

Anyway when analysing last weekend's Castres v Munster game he did hone in on one particular incident…much was made of challenges made by several different players from the home side and after a hot-tempered match many were cited, yet when Andrew Conway was in the act of trying to dot down for what would been a crucial Munster try, he knocked on just as Urditalleta performed what can only be described as a ‘football-style’ sliding tackle on him.

‘This is not football!’ decried BOD.  While I agree that it was a shocking challenge, I actually think in this case we should do exactly what the statutes of the round-ball game demand, namely a red card for showing studs in a challenge.

The raised studs are arguably soccer's equivalent to our high tackles, and when you consider that the Castres outhalf could have easily connected with Conway's head, his recklessness represents the worst of both worlds yet wasn't even acknowledged by the BT Sport commentators at the time.

Clearly his intention was to clear the ball to and not cause the Munster winger any harm, but that's not the point.  It should have been flagged by officials, especially given the sequence was reviewed several times by the TMO anyway.


CLASH OF THE CASH

Just a pair of mini rants stemming from last weekend's Champions Cup action; first, at Ravenhill we had Ulster hosting the Scarlets.

As we all know, the word ‘scarlet’ means red.  As rugby fans, we also know that Ulster are famous for their white home kit.  So why the hell were they the ones wearing red at the Kingspan while the Welsh Region with a colour literally as the their name had to wear white?

Eariler in the campaign we had Cardiff and Glasgow wearing virtually the same colours.  The moral of the story is simple…while it's true manufacturers bring in much-needed revenue, they shouldn't be allowed to make simple decisions like jersey colours ridiculously complicated.

Then there was the scheduling of the Munster match to be at the exact same time as Leinster v Bath???  What genius cooked that up?  Do they not realise that for fans of both provinces, cheering your own team to win is every bit as important as hoping the other team lo- er, I mean also wins???

Much like manufacturers, broadcasters offer important revenue, but they should also respect the fans’ traditions and wishes.


LEINSTER ALUMNI XV

A couple of weeks ago I suggested a XV of Leinster players with similar names, and I reckoned that could become an occasional theme for this feature.  Well whaddya know, I've only gone and found another one.

Tom Daly moved to Connacht this week, and I wish him the best of luck.  Often you hear Leinster fans bemoaning the departure of players but the way I see it, we're producing so much quality that it's impossible to hold onto all of them.

And when the really good ones like Ian Madigan and Jordi Murphy leave, or when others develop well after leaving like Tadhg Beirne and John Cooney, many seem to think this somehow proves we should just keep everyone under lock and key in the Leinster system even if it means us using over 100 players in a season.

You might have guess from my bit of sarcasm there that I disagree and am fully on board with the notion of players moving on once it suits both them and Leinster equally.

Here's my XV for now; I'm sure I can put better players in at certain positions, feel free to point them out for me.  I had problems at hooker as I can't seem to locate where JHW is plying his trade at the moment but I'll leave him in the XV anyway.

15 Joey Carbery (Munster)
14 Cian Kelleher (Connacht)
13 Tom Farrell (Connacht)
12 Tom Daly (Connacht)
11 Andrew Conway (Munster)
10 Ian Madigan (Bristol)
9 John Cooney (Ulster)

1 Jeremy Loughman (Munster)
2 Jason Harris-Wright (Bristol*)
3 Marty Moore (Ulster)
4 Gavin Thornbury (Connacht)
5 Tadhg Beirne (Munster)
6 Conor Gilsenan (London Irish)
7 Jordi Murphy (Ulster)
8 Nick Timoney (Ulster)

Thanks for sticking with this latest set of Harpin Points.  Shout me in tweet or Facebook comments if you want to discuss anything further.  See you later in the week as the first set of seasonal interprovincials comes around.  JLP

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