Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Harpin Points 29 - Finn, Dan, Warren & more


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

This week's Harpin Points have a small twist, as I managed to find three different topics from the one match, namely Racing 92 v Toulouse from the Top 14 last Sunday.  I've already offered an 80-word review of the actual rugby but I'll need a few more for these observations. 

RUSSELL HOBBLES
(RACING RANT #1)

Anyone who wonders why Joe Schmidt doesn't want his squad members plying their trade anywhere but the four proud provinces will find all the answers they need from this 80- minutes at La Defense Arena.

Next Saturday at the Stade de France, Les Blues will entertain Scotland in a clash that's vital to both if they want a decent finish on this year's table.  With Stuart Hogg already ruled out, Gregor Townsend will have been relying heavily on Finn Russell for creative output.

But here's the thing…Russell plays for Racing this weather, and one of the conditions of such big money moves abroad would have been that he must play Top 14 matches like this one, particularly with the team just outside the playoff places and their visitors being the back-near-their-best Toulouse.

In the opening exchanges, we see both the best and the worst of Russell.  He throws a bad interception that leads to a try, yet he also gets over the line himself for a 5-pointer.  In stretching out to score however, he seems to have injured himself, and he shies away from taking the conversion before the camera catches a close up of him gesticulating to the touchline to be substituted.  Yet he plays on for a bit before eventually being replaced by Volavola.

Of course this is a ‘hot take’ on my part, but is it that much of a stretch to suggest his coaches didn't believe him?  It did look kind of convenient, with such a big game to come just six days later, for him to look to be taken off so early.  And the fact that Scotland are playing the French when his employers are a Top 14 club doesn't help much either.

Whether that is what transpired or not, as far as I'm concerned the fact that it's even possible is absolutely ridiculous.  Something needs to change somewhere along the line.  Maybe all test nations can be allowed to protect a limited amount of foreign-based players during test windows? Or better still, maybe there shouldn't be domestic fixtures at all during them?

For Scotland's sake I hope he's OK for the weekend, although if he is, it will only serve to further confirm my suspicions.


OÙ EST ZEBO?
(RACING RANT #2)

Speaking of Joe's selection policy, it was referenced quite a bit after England's recent win in Dublin, with many putting forward the notion that perhaps Simon Zebo's inclusion would have made a difference.

In a previous edition of Harpin Points I explored that theory, claiming it was rubbish while still making the point that Zebo is a quality player who could well have a future with the Ireland set up should he return to provincial rugby in the future.

Well, I still feel that way overall about him, but if he has more outings like this one against Toulouse, I may have to revise that theory. It wasn't that he was bad, more that he was invisible virtually from start to finish.

Now to be fair, although his only real contribution to the action was when he had a clearance blocked near his own line which led to the visitor's fourth and final try, that was more down to his team mate putting him in an awkward position.

The rest of the time, I honestly forgot he was even on the pitch until just before halftime, and once I was conscious of his lack of involvement it got more obvious with each passing minute.  Maybe it's not his fault rather the team's game-plan shutting him out, but whatever the reason, it definitely served to silence anyone who thought he deserved a call up for the rest of this year's Six Nations.


DESPERATE FOR DAN
(RACING RANT #3)

I remember the day like it was yesterday, but it was a Wednesday in mid March 2012.  I managed to make it to Anglesea Road to watch a hastily-arranged fixture between Leinster A and Connacht A, which the boys in blue comfortably won 50-0.

The reason for the haste was that Leinster wanted to give new signing Brad Thorn a run. We all know what happened from there but I still don't mind saying it again…we went on to secure our third Heineken Cup title in four years at Twickenham.

I bring him up because Racing have pulled a similar stroke for this year's competition, and the Kiwi World Cup winner they have called on is someone that needs no acclimatisation to Parisian rugby, namely Dan Carter.

Even though my Leinster availed of a similar loophole, I think it is one that should be closed. I know the European rugby season is long, but as far as I'm concerned the squad of players you name for rounds 4 and 5 should be the one you bring through to the rest of the campaign.

Being able to add the likes of Thorn and Carter to your ranks in the latter stages of the continents biggest club prize takes from its value IMO.  They become not much better than ‘ringers’ you find in Sunday morning kickoffs.

It's probably good that I get this rant in now in case Leinster face Racing in the Champions Cup semis in which case my moaning about it could look like sour grapes 😉.

Besides, as great and all as it was to see Thorn wearing Leinster blue, with all due respect to Ulster and the others we got past that season, I really don't think we needed him.

ITALIANS DOING A JOB

Since Italian teas first joined the Celtic League, whenever they lose heavily, and to be fair that has been quite often over the years, the same opinions spring forth : ‘They're just not good enough! Never should have been allowed in the first place!’

My argument against that narrative is generally that if the FIR are paying their way into the league, then who are we to dispute their inclusion, particularly if we want to compete for our own players with both Premiership and Top 14.

But had they been kicked out years ago as many suggested, we wouldn't have had days like last Saturday, when Zebre may have lost to Leinster but not without giving the reigning champions an almighty scare, while later over in Treviso, Benetton put the 2017 league champion Scarlets to the sword in impressive fashion, keeping their playoff hopes very much alive with just six games to go.

Just because they haven't been setting major competitions alight at the business end doesn't mean their existence doesn't help the game in the country. And it's not like they're not making an effort to appeal to fans either - not only was the Zebre v Leinster match staged in Viadana where Aironi used to play, it was also part of a double header with an important club fixture and I reckon the crowd was larger than we've been known to see at such matches, even if there was a decent Leinster representation.

I might be alone but I've gotten used to seeing Treviso and Zebre on our schedule and I wouldn't want them gone, although surely there has to be a senior club based in Rome some day?


KEEPING UP WITH THE GATLANDS AND JONES

Maybe it was mischievous meddling from the mainstream media but just a few days before a huge Six Nations clash between England and Wales, the coach of one of them gets reported as a possible replacement for the other.

Could we rule it out as nonsense? Certainly not in this topsy turvy world. But since I seem to be following a theme in this week's Harpin Points about certain norms in the modern games being crazy, I might as well continue in that vein here.

Whether or not Gatland ever does actually take the England job, the fact remains that every year we see examples of a player or coach being confirmed to be moving from one club to another in mid-season, after which the clubs in question end up facing each other. Call me old-fashioned but I think that goes completely against the most fundamental principles of sport.

Of course I know full well the complexities brought to bear by rugby union; the fact that the game is played to an equal standard in different hemispheres makes it difficult to find room for anything remotely resembling a ‘transfer wndow’, but I still believe it is a problem that needs addressing.

Just to generate some 'click bait' why don't I just pick random players ahead of every big match and make up rumours about them thinking about moving to the opposition?  I'll start working on my ‘Sexton to Ulster’ story right away to have it ready in time for the end of March.  Sure if you can't beat the Fake News era, why not join it? 😜

From all I have heard about the plans of World Rugby under the Beaumont/Pichot regime however, while they do seem to be looking at making changes to the calendar, their focus would seem to be leaning more towards finding new ways of generating TV revenue by way of more high-profile test matches and competitions.

As I said in an earlier point, more money in the game is for the most part a good thing, but IMO to go chasing it before dealing with a host of niggly curiosities like those I have mentioned today (and many more besides) can only lead to them getting worse and possibly even more appearing down the road.


Many thanks for sticking with my latest Harpin Points until the end.  We've a busy weekend in store on these pages with team announcements, previews, comments and writeups for both Leinster and Ireland to come, do stay tuned.  JLP

Blog Archive