Monday, September 28, 2020

OPINION : Sarries seems to be the hardest topic


So here it is, Sunday evening and normally this is the time I pen a 2000-word piece about either Leinster or Ireland’s match from the weekend.  Unfortunately as the Champions Cup semifinals were the only rugby at that level on offer, I’m at a bit of a loose end so I was going to leave it for the week in preparation for the new Pro 14 campaign which kicks off next Friday.

Then I saw this…

What annoyed me most about Sonja’s observation was the timing. 

Seven days earlier I was bending myself into a pretzel to avoid factoring my thoughts on Saracens’ off field antics into my assessment of the Champions Cup quarterfinal at the Aviva Stadium.  This was for two reasons; first and foremost it was meant to be a match writeup so I needed to focus on the 50 players & officials involved in the 80 minutes on the day. More importantly however, I avoided the whole salary cap thing because given how the match went, it would look like I was a sore loser. 

Now I don’t know what Premiership club Sonja McLaughlan follows, but given her statement referred to “English sides” and was posted shortly after full time in the Racing v Sarries semifinal, how could it be viewed as anything but sour grapes? And so I took aim with my reply, and I stand by it. 

Let’s be clear.  The English have always had a complicated relationship with Europe’s biggest club competition.  Ulster fans won’t thank me for saying this, but the Premiership didn’t feature at all in the 1999 version yet they still won 6 of the first 12 finals, spread among 4 different clubs.

But then from 2007-2015, there was no English success at all.  Can’t be having that, can we?  Thus began a war of words in the media and concerted pressure from Prem clubs, with passive aggressive support from the Top14 ones, which saw an overhaul for the 2014-15 season and beyond. Since then, Saracens have won 3 of the 5 titles.

Now it will be at least two years before they can win again, and although we have Exeter keeping Premiership interest alive in this year’s final, any call for change from English shores is utterly ludicrous given the history.  If change is to happen, it certainly can’t be done because they’re not winning it.  At least not again.

But here’s the twist in my argument.  I actually agree with McLaughlan a bit, at least in principle.  WHAAAAAT?  You might say.  Let me just take my Leinster/Ireland hat off for a brief moment. 

That leaves me as a sports fan.  Of course I want everyone competing in a tournament following the same rules.  That should be a no brainer.  

And while many are talking about the necessity to create something called a “British & Irish League” I think that would make an absolute mockery of the Heineken Champions Cup since it would basically involve a merger between only two leagues, one of which spans 5 nations and the other just 1.

For me, if format reform is to be done I’d want to go the whole hog and create a European Super League.  I’ve actually been harping on that for over a decade.  Week in, week out clashes involving Leinster, Munster, Ulster, Toulouse, Racing, Bristol, Exeter, Scarlets, Edinburgh, Toulon - and yes, even Saracens once their penance is done (apols to anyone I left out, just going on recent form here) - with maybe regional lower leagues for everyone else feeding into it, possibly providing a path for the Georgias and Russias to take part as well.

What would become of the three senior domestic competitions as we know them?  They could still exist, just as the Mitre10 Cup, Currie Cup & NRC still do in the SH.  The TV revenue might be less for those after the change, but the hope would be that it would be a lot more for the top level.

So the good news for Leinster in this scenario would be that we’d have a much tougher schedule throughout the campaign, with all due respects to our current crop of opponents.  The “bad” news, however, is that for this top level competition to exist there would surely have to be some kind of universal rules regarding squad composition and reimbursement.  This is what I think Sonja was getting at, poor though her timing may have been.  

The IRFU would need to weigh their options very carefully before agreeing to something like this, though I should add those options would probably be the same for a British & Irish League.  Also, if the four Irish provinces played at different levels of a pyramid structure, there would be pressure on those in the lower tiers to give up their best players.  So when the Leinster/Ireland hat goes back on, things get complicated once more.

But like I said, a solution should not be one that is designed to make just one nation happy.  That’s kind of how compromise works.  I guess European Rugby needs to come together and ask itself if a level playing field is worth giving up home comforts for.  In fact, as I’m typing this it has dawned on me that what I’m suggesting is that the English actually JOIN a pan-European venture!!!  "Br-enter"? What was I thinking???

All of a sudden the 2020/21 Pro 14 season, starting as it does with only 12 clubs, still in two conferences and with perhaps a couple of South African sides still playing some part from January, doesn’t seem all that complicated any more.  Maybe I’ll just knuckle down and focus on that instead.  Check out our podcast this week I’ll be discussing just that with some fellow Leinster fans.  JLP


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