Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Harpin Points 32 - Bonuses, Flankers & more


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

THE POINT OF BONUS BONUS POINTS

Ah, I remember it well.  I shared a post on the Harpin Facebook page several years ago supporting the notion that the Six Nations should introduce bonus points, and one of the comments I received made a point along the lines of…

“Clearly you think you know better than John Feehan, CEO of the Six Nations, do you?”

A couple of years later, Feehan brought in the bonus points.  Am I choosing to gloat here to that particular commenter?  Yeah, I suppose I am a bit, but in my defence, this is the first time I have brought it up and the bonus points are now in their third season of use in the annual tournament.

But one of the arguments AGAINST the idea is that in a competition that has just five matches for each team, a team could conceivably win the Grand Slam (comfortably the highest achievement the Six Nations has to offer) yet secure fewer points than another.

To put this in the most extreme mathematical terms, say a team wins the Grand Slam yet all 5 wins are with 3 tries or less.  That would give them 4x5=20 points.  However in this fictional case, one of the teams they beat managed both a try and losing bonus point in their defeat and then went on to win their other four matches with four tries in each… That would give them 2 + (4x5)=22 points.

As that annoying meerkat in those ad would say, the way around that was ‘Simples’. Just add a rule whereby a Grand Slam win earns you 3 bonus bonus points.  And hey presto, the anomaly can never happen.

By the by - next time you're with some mates who think they know Irish rugby, try this teaser on them… “How many match points did Ireland earn on the way to their 2018 Slam?” and see how they get on.  The answer is 26 - 5 wins (20), 3 with try bonus (3) and the Grand Slam bonus (3).

Going back to my extreme example above, you might assume that it would be impossible for a team to win 5 from 5 without earning a try bonus point, and with apologies to Italian fans in particular, it actually does seem that way.

Yet look at the 2019 standings after 4 rounds.  Wales are on course for a Grand Slam yet they have ‘only’ 16 points because they got 3 tries v France and just 2 apiece against England, Scotland and even Italy.

This means that if the Slam bonus were not there, they could conceivably beat Ireland on Saturday yet if it happened again without a BP, England could pull level with them if they managed four or more tries in beating Scotland.

If the first tie breaker were points difference, then England would finish in first.  Now I know that other means could have been used to break the tie like record between the teams or even amount of wins, but neither would work if England had managed a losing BP in Cardiff.

So in other words, the 3-point Slam bonus was a good idea.

Does that mean the whole BP experiment has worked and should be retained?  Eh, yes and no IMO.

I have spoken before on these pages about the distinction between the four-try bonus point we have gotten to know in the Pro 14 (or as I call it the ‘Quantity BP’) and the one used in the Top 14 where you must score 3 tries more than your opponents (the ‘Differential BP’).

I'd be for the QBP to be scrapped altogether making the DBP standard practice.  What I like about it is that it makes the try bonus point not only something you can gain, but also something you can go on to lose if you're not careful.

Take Ireland against France last Sunday.  I railed against fans who moaned about the two late tries we conceded because they didn't matter, and they didn't. But under a DBP system, that controversial call by the ref at the end to award a touch down that neither he nor the TMO could see would have actually lost us our bonus.  Having said that, if the system were in place, we might have been that bit more focused.  Either way, I'd like to see it used throughout top flight rugby.


MONEY MAKES THE WORLD LEAGUE GO ROUND

Last week I devoted all of my Harpin Points to the proposed World League which apparently would involve some kind of round-robin division structure throughout the test nations.  Overall I was in favour of the concept but only once it met certain criteria.

Well since I offered that opining, there have been more developments.  The first one does not surprise me - both the Premiership & Top 14 clubs have come out against the idea, saying it goes against their standing agreement, but probably more because it might usurp the significance of their own brand of rugby.

For me, it's pretty simple. Test rugby should come first and a proper framework needs to be established that is fair to all nations and helps promote the game as far and wide as possible.  Once done, then the clubs can have their say.

But since the game went professional the English & French clubs in particular have been allowed to pretty much dictate the way their competitions are run, and as long as they are the richest single entities in the sport, they will probably continue to try to exert their dominance by fair means or foul.

All of which means that the changes being proposed by World Rugby now are crucial for the future of the development of the sport.  Hopefully they are willing to stand up to the expensive legal teams these clubs will no doubt assemble and keep the real priorities of the game at the top where they belong.

But it seems there is now an added complication, again coming from the world of big-money sponsors.  The Six Nations is apparently having its head turned by a private equity firm called CVC.

I really don't see the need to go into all these sponsorship proposals in great deal for this particular topic; all I'll point out is that when the test nations assemble in Dublin on Thursday to discuss the World League and other matters, I wonder how much it will be an actual meeting of separate distinct rugby unions intent on improving the game at home, and how much it will be a meeting of various sponsors looking to use the sport to further their on ends.  Hopefully it will be mostly about the former.

SIXES & SEVENS

I am as delighted to learn that Dan Leavy is back in contention for Ireland selection as I am disappointed to learn that Josh van der Flier is out.

When you consider their combined injury woes, plus those of Seán O’Brien, and before the the likes of Chris Henry and Stephen Ferris, you really have to wonder about the playing life span of rugby players in general, and flankers in particular.

Just think about what they're asked to do in a match.  Back rowers do many things around the park and most of that takes its toll anyway, but it has to be the never ending hunt for turnovers that must put them in most peril.

If you want to be at the top you have to consider every breakdown to be a potential turnover, so it's not enough that you go looking fo contact, not enough that you remain mindful where the ball is, and not even enough that you give your all to try to latch on and tempt the referee's whistle because if you don't, you've to pick yourself up and get yourself to the next breakdown to start all over again.

In the modern game we often see goal-line stands with 20, 30 and sometimes even 40 phases and while this can be punishing for everyone on the defending team, since this is where the flankers are meant to shine, it's probably worse for them and this could be why they appear to be injured more often.

Of course it's not just an Irish problem - David Pocock is one of the game’s most potent poachers yet he has had his own long spells out with injury.   Sam Warburton is another great who's career ended prematurely.

What's the solution?  Well the players representatives are talking about making game time management a priority with the changes to the global calendar and they are definitely right.  There need to be limits to the amount of game time the top players are expected to provide throughout a season.

But if we go down the road of actually coming up with numbers to be maximum minutes, it can be a tricky negotiation.  Would a flanker warrant the same limit as, say, a full back? And if the limits are known by everyone, will it affect the elation ship between coaches and the media?  By that I mean scenarios where a coach gets asked at press conference how much he intends to use a certain players for a certain group of games since everyone knows he can only appear for a certain number of minutes.

Another possible answer would be to increase the amount of substitutes.  Each front rower gets a replacement and these days very few see a full 80 minutes. But along the back row, generally the three starters know only one of them will be replaced so they are more prone to doing full shifts.

Of course the argument against more substitutes is obvious, because the more we suggest an increase the closer we get to an NFL-type situation where there are more players in the stadium than fans.

But as more and more 7s in particular spend more and more time on the treatment table, it becomes more and more imperative that something is done to at least try to cut it down.


PROPER ORDER

Way way back in the day I was a loose head prop and my principal instruction from coaches was to stay as far away from the actual rugby ball as I could. 

Somehow I didn't take it too personally at the time and even now I realise that my sole purpose was at scrum time and other people got to do the cool things with the ball like scoring tries.

Nowadays, however, prop's at the highest level get to do much much more, especially when it comes to carrying.  But as time has gone n in the professional age, we have often see them try their hands at other things, and last weekend we had a couple of examples of this.

Take Cian Healy.  The second he realised the ball at the back of a French breakdown was over the line and thus fair game, he stretched out an arm to touch it down and was very unlucky not to succeed.

On the previous day at Twickenham, Kyle Sinckler took it on himself to actually kick for territory in an attacking situation.  He'll know the game plan enough that this is what was warranted in that particular situation, so if he sees a gap and is willing to back himself, why shouldn't he have a go? And what's more, he found a decent touch.

I love moments like that - Adam Jones was another who liked to be a jack of all trades kind of prop.  And one thing is for sure…more often than not the cross overs only go in one direction from forwards to backs.  I can't imagine too many out halves packing down in a front row, though come to think of it, Johnny Sexton might be an exception!


Many thanks for sticking with my latest Harpin Points until the end.  As the weekend gets closer we will of course be turning our attention to the Six Nations Super Saturday.  Stay tuned!  JLP

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