Wales v Georgia – a replacement controversy

The 2017 6 Nations saw arguably one of the most controversial incidents in professional rugby’s history, when France met Cardiff.

Late in the game, as the French were attacking the Welsh tryline, the French prop Atonio was replaced by the starting prop (Slimani), who had earlier been substituted in the game. The change was made under the Head Impact Assessment (HIA) protocols; brought in to protect players in the event of suspected head traumas, and not as a means to bring stronger players back on to the field at crucial moments of the game.

At the time it seemed pretty clear what had gone on, and we tweeted:

The timeline of the controversial prop replacement was covered in a popular blog article at the time.

Someone who also felt the French had done something wrong was Rob Howley, who said this at the time:

howley slimani quote.jpg

Pretty strong words and an unequivocal stance.  Fast forward 8 months and we now find Wales embroiled in similar controversy, but this time the accusing fingers are pointing at Wales.

 

What happened?

Let’s look at the key developments in the controversy:

55 mins: Wales replace their loose head prop (Nicky Smith) and their tight head prop (Leon Brown), who had endured a difficult game in the scrum on his test debut. Tomos Francis replaces Brown.  Both replaced players seem to walk and jog off the pitch without any evidence of injury.

81.23 Georgia, trailing 13-6,  attack the Welsh line, just metres out, when the referee (Reynal) penalises the Welsh tight head Tomos Francis and issues him with a yellow card. Wales should ordinarily bring back on their starting tight head, assuming he is not injured.

81.27 The camera cuts to the Welsh coaching box. Rob Howley is inside the room while the other coaches are looking at the screen or the pitch. There is no discussion at this point.

81.52 We see both Welsh props standing on the touchline with their kit off, alongside Wales’ Performance Manager Paul Stridgeon with the ear piece.

As the footage shows, Stridgeon suddenly turns around and seems to look up towards the coaches box. His right hand then goes to his microphone as if he is going to communicate and he then walks in front of Brown but continues to look up towards the coach’s box. Brown then looks at Stridgeon as he talks in to his microphone.

Frustratingly the producer cuts away from that picture and shows us the Francis infringement again. Even more frustratingly, we can hear the odd word from the referee but Jonathan Davies talks over the top of him.

81.52  The camera shows the Welsh box again, but this time there seems to be a couple of conversations going on. Howley seems to be the only one of the management team with an ear piece, we assume to communicate with the bench.

The referee calls a scrum. Incidentally, the Georgian starting tight head prop returns to the field. How has this happened? Has the reserve prop been injured? He seems to limp off but have Georgia also tried to manipulate the rules by bringing back on their first choice tight head?

Again we see the Welsh box and Sean Edwards talking in an animated fashion to Howley. Robin McBryde has now put his head set on as well.

The referee tries to form the scrum but realises that Wales are still a prop down. He then starts to look back towards the touchline. He must receive some information from the 4th official because we can hear him say, “so it’s uncontested scrum”.

This time we can’t hear the referee’s important words because Eddie Butler talks over the top of him. Reynal seems to suggest that Wales will play with 13 (perhaps he is thinking of the French league where if a prop can’t be replaced, they forfeit that player).

The Welsh coaching team are now looking impassively at the pitch. The referee informs the Wales’ captain Lydiate that they don’t have enough props, and that the game will move to uncontested scrums, although he still wants Wales to move to 13 players.

Wales’ replacement hooker Dacey seems ready to come on and there is again chat in the Welsh coaching box, but this seems linked to the issue about the referee wanting Wales to go down to 13 players, rather than the replacement of Francis.

It’s pretty incredible that an elite referee doesn’t know the test match rules around replacements but that’s another issue.

 

Post-match comments

Warren Gatland told us after the match that Leon Brown had been taken off as a tactical change and not as an injury replacement, but he added that “…we knew he was cramping up a little bit”.

Gatland also stated that: “I can promise you there wasn’t anything from our point of view in terms of trying to manipulate the laws or anything like that. If Leon had have been fit, he definitely would have gone back on the field.”

Gatland attended today’s presser where he added a few more details about the incident:

“…from the box we said Leon is to go back on, and the message came that he couldn’t go back on, he’s been cramping up..”. Gatland also said that there were a number of occasions in the game where they could see Brown cramping and stretching, but it wasn’t an injury replacement because:

“we were hoping that if he does…if he is cramping, and he’s got time to recover he can get out there. They just said, look he hasn’t recovered from that”.

 

Did Brown have cramp?

If we look back at the footage we can see that in the 54th minute of the game Brown comes together with a Georgian player and he seems to be in some discomfort as a result. With around 53.49 on the clock, Brown seems to be hobbling alongside the referee.

Here he is holding his foot in a manner consistent with calf cramp.

brown cramp

 

Questions to ask

If Brown did have cramp, why wasn’t he taken off as an injured player, rather than a tactical switch?

If Brown did have cramp at the point when Francis went off (nearly 30 minutes later), why did he stand on the touchline seemingly ready to play?

What did Gatland mean by this – “we were hoping that if he does…if he is cramping, and he’s got time to recover he can get out there.” ?  Get out there, when? As another impact player late in the game?

Who made the call to tell the box that Brown had cramp? The player himself as he stood on the touchline?

How did Georgia’s starting tight head also come back on to the pitch?

What was the sequence and content of the discussions between the box and Stridgeon? The limited camera views seemed to suggest that the box first made contact with Stridgeon as he was with Brown, but Stridgeon replied without speaking to Brown. Had Brown already said to Stridgeon he was suffering from cramp?

 

The rugby authorities needs to look in to this incident and with more urgency and application than it did with the French farce. The game’s integrity is rapidly eroding at the professional level and we need to do what we can to retain it.

 

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My mate was right – rugby ethics really are no better than football’s

Ten years ago, I always looked forward to Monday’s chat at the water cooler in the office with my colleague Mike. It was a chance to talk about the weekend’s football action; the players diving to get a penalty, the crowd verbally abusing the opposition player, the forward who stayed on the floor to milk a free kick and the manager who would berate the officials to mask his own failures.

Mike was a Spurs fan and I was an ardent rugby supporter. I felt a sense of superiority that my game had some intrinsic moral superiority to his game, because of the unwritten rugby rules around fair play, integrity and treating the opposition and officials alike with respect.

I would scoff at any suggestion that rugby players would feign an injury to con a fellow professional. I would baulk at his proposal that money would harm rugby’s values and I would laugh in his face when he said rugby will end up with the same problems of integrity that faced football.

Ten years on, I think I was wrong and he was right.

 

What’s happened to our game?

At the grassroots level of rugby we haven’t yet seen the same deterioration in values that we are seeing in the professional game – but this may come. What we do know, is that at the top level of the game we are seeing an increasing change in the way the game is played and how coaches and supporters approach the sport.

What used to be a bit of fun has now turned in to a commercial industry which supports people’s livelihoods (players and coaches) and sucks hard-earned cash from others (supporters).

Theblitzdefence has covered some of these changes in rugby in our “footballisation of rugby” mini-series, which covered abusing officialsplayacting, Nico Matawalu and Pat Lam.

These aren’t isolated incidents though. In the last few weeks we have seen more examples of the sorts of behaviours that were common in football but considered taboo in rugby. Here are a few of the main trends.

 

Abusing officials

Rugby has always been a sport where you have been allowed to voice your opinion and say if you don’t agree with an officials decision; as it should be. Coaches should have the right to say “I don’t think it was a red card, because XYZ”, but what they are now doing is calling officials’ independence and integrity in to question.

A serial offender is the Sale coach Steve Diamond who has recently been given another ban for comments about officials. This time he accused a referee of making up offences.

“Well, he [Maxwell-Keys] was making it up, wasn’t he?” Diamond said.

“The ref was making the decision up. There were 40 or 50 rucks that should have been penalised if that’s a penalty.

“We found out in Europe the refereeing is abysmal, and we found out tonight [against Exeter] that if referees want to come up here and make it up, then they can do.”

In the recent England – Australia test, it was reported that the Australian coach Michael Cheika was caught on camera appearing to accuse New Zealand referee Ben O’Keeffe of “f****** cheating” from the coaches box.

He then followed this up with a fractious interview with a journalist. Alex Ferguson or Mourinho anyone?

 

Cheating the system

We are not just talking about bending on-field rugby laws – which is so widespread in the professional game that it’s barely worth commenting on, but exploiting rules brought in to help player welfare to improve a team’s chances of winning.

A year or so ago, rugby’s very own Jeremy Clarkson, Austin Healy, suggested faking a head injury to give a player time to recover. This seemed far fetched, but last season’s 6 Nations game between France and Wales ended in controversy, after the French prop was removed for a head impact assessment to be replaced by a strong scrummaging replacement.

The 6 Nations review in to the incident reprimanded France but stated there was “no clear evidence” that they deliberately bent the rules. An incredible conclusion.

In the recent Autumn international between Wales and Georgia we saw a similar incident. Wales had a prop sent to the sin bin in the last minute of the game, but their reserve prop developed cramp and couldn’t return to the field. This meant the game reverted to uncontested scrum, rendering the 5m Georgian scrum impotent.

There should be an investigation in to this incident and the full facts determined, but the sad aspect of this tale is that most of us don’t believe what the Welsh camp are telling us. Our trust in what we are seeing has been eroded to the point that there is little integrity left at the elite level.

 

“Professionalism”

Remember when we used to laugh at football players collapsing to the ground to milk free kicks and cards? How it was frustrating to see footballers constantly appealing to officials, instead of getting on with the game? Well, these “professional” acts are live and well in rugby.

It’s common now to see players kick the ball ahead, then look for contact with a defender before falling to the ground, arms flailing. Cue all the player’s teammates in the immediate vicinity also raise their arms in horror.

When a player is touched or tackled in the air, we see the same orchestrated appeal from those around him. There is also the sense that players now stay on the ground having treatment for longer than in necessary, in order to make the offence seem worse than it is.

Every scrum half at the elite level, must spend hours in training slapping players on the thighs in order to practise the ubiquitous “ruck slap”, which very helpfully informs referees that an opposition player is on their side of the ruck. No so long ago the scrum half would have just played the ball, now they feel they need to spend most of the time pointing out offences.

 

What happened to rugby values?

The problem with the loss of values and respect on the rugby field, is that rugby is not a game that can live without them. There are so many physical collisions and hits on the field, that if every one is now going to be turned in to an opportunity to get the opposition penalised or sent off, the game becomes unplayable.

The complexity of the game will always mean that it is difficult to officiate and referees will make mistakes. When the game was amateur these errors were overlooked, but given these results now have knock on impacts to people’s livelihoods their importance has been magnified. With this additional scrutiny has come a trend to more abusive and derogatory statements against officials by those whose livelihoods are at stake.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the influence of money on rugby would have a corrupting influence, but we can say with some certainty that the greater the money in the game, the more rugby’s values and conduct will begin to look like football.

Mike was right. For a lot of us that isn’t something to aspire to.

 

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Wales’ Autumn Woes against the Southern Hemisphere Giants

There are some things that you read or hear, that are so unbelievable you need to check them again to make sure they are true. The fact Mrs Brown’s Boys is on primetime TV or that Boris Johnson is the UK’s Foreign Secretary (as at the time of writing), are just two examples that spring to mind.

Another – more rugby related fact, is that Wales have not won their opening game of an Autumn test series since 2002, when they beat Romania. This doesn’t include World Cup games which are scheduled in the northen hemisphere Autumn, but it is still an impressive 12 games without a solitary win.

Two things jump out from this list. Firstly, that Wales should play Romania more often as the first game of the series and secondly that Wales can’t be accused of shying away from confronting the big boys from the south.

This is a pretty tough fixture list, particularly given Wales’ players are making a swift transition from domestic rugby, while the likes of Australia and New Zealand have often been together in the proceeding months playing friendlies or the Rugby Championship.

Although there are obvious hindrances to Wales’ ability to compete – given the rugby timetable in Europe, these same issues also apply to England, Ireland and Scotland, so how do they get on in their first game of the Autumn campaign?

 

A comparison with England, Ireland and Scotland

If we look at the results from the first Autumn window fixture for all 4 “Home” nations teams, we get an interesting picture as the table below shows. Green is a victory, red a defeat and grey a draw.

autumn 1st game results.jpg

Wales certainly has the toughest fixture list of the 4 teams, but if we look at the total number of victories against the tier 1 nations (Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), it makes pretty sobering reading if you are a Welsh supporter.

The obvious explanation is that Wales haven’t been as good as the other “Home” nations teams over the period to 2002 but the following table dispels that. This shows the number of victories in 6 Nations and World Cup games since 2002 between Wales and the other “Home” nations’ teams.

wales wins

Over the period to 2002, Wales have dominated Scotland and still registered a sizeable number of victories over Ireland and England, so why is it that they seem unable to win the first game of the Autumn series when other teams of roughly their level, with the same calendar constraints, can register multiple wins?

 

It’s not just the first game where Wales struggles

We know Wales struggle in the first game of the series. Not only do the results show this in stark terms but the performances themselves also highlight that it is an issue for the team.

In 2016 they kicked off with a chastening 8 – 32 defeat to Australia, in 2012 they were convincingly beaten by Argentina 12 – 26, while New Zealand ran riot 3 – 41 in Cardiff in 2005. By the end of each Autumn series, performances are noticeably better, but does this improved performance translate in to victories against the tier 1 nations?

The table below shows Wales win/loss ratio for Autumn internationals against the tier 1 nations since 2002 (excluding World Cup games) and also for all games against each opposition.

wales wins v sh

Across all Autumn international games since 2002, Wales have only won 7 games against the big 4 from the southern hemisphere and in all games (including tours, friendlies, World Cup games etc) the total is only 10. How does this compare to the other “home” nations?

 

Home nations results against “Big 4” since 2002

The following table shows the results of all games between the teams from the start of calendar year 2002.

all results v sh

A few interesting bits of data stand out:

  • There is a wide range in the total number of games played against the big 4 – England (68), Wales (63), Ireland (51) and Scotland (43)
  • Wales has the fewest number of victories; by comparison Scotland has chalked up 11 wins over the period, which is one in which Wales has been considerably stronger than Scotland
  • Both England and Ireland have managed to secure materially more wins against Australia and South Africa, compared to Wales

 

Why do Wales struggle against the southern hemisphere?

This article has shown that not only do Wales perform badly in the first game of the Autumn series, but this trend is carried across all games where they face the big 4 from the south.

To add to this, we know that since 2002, Wales have dominated games against Scotland and have decent records against England and Ireland, and yet their record against the big 4 is inferior to all the other “home” nations. The question is why is this the case?

There is no definitive answer but here are a few ideas that have been suggested:

  • There is a suggestion that Wales, under Warren Gatland, are given intense physical sessions in camp before the first test of the series. Do these “beastings” mean players are below optimal physical condition for the first game?
  • Do Welsh players have some sort of mental weakness when it comes to playing teams that they regularly lose to? Does the fact they have little interaction with these southern hemisphere nations and their players mean they hold them in some revered light?
  • Wales don’t target beating the southern hemisphere teams enough, and are happy with winning the 6 Nations?
  • They struggle with the faster pace and intensity that the big 4 bring and don’t have the ability to impress their own game plan on the match?

If you have any other theories or comments on these ideas, please let us know.

In the mean time with Wales hosting Australia this weekend, is the result a foregone conclusion……?

 

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The must-have offence in Autumn – sticking a hand out to block a pass

Everybody’s doing it. It seems to be the rugby offence of the season so far; if you look like conceding a try out wide, stick your hand in the way and block the pass, and pray that the referee takes a lenient view.

Here are 4 examples from the last few weeks’ rugby action.

 

(1) Castres v Munster (Simon Zebo, Champions Cup – October 2017)

Our first example shows a Castres attack down their right hand side, which results in a 2 on 2 situation, with Earls and Zebo in the defensive line for Munster.

For some reason Zebo doesn’t think Earls will make the tackle, so he steps inside to cover the attack. As the image below shows, Earls was comfortably able to make the tackle.

zebo 1

Zebo realises he is caught in no man’s land as the offload is made, so sticks his arm out to make the block.

The tweet below shows that the outside Castres player had a clear run in to the line.

Alan Quinlan gets himself in all sorts of knots in the commentary, after saying “It’s probably just a penalty”, he then agrees that if the winger had received the ball it was a try.

Bizarrely, the referee Matthew Carley just gives a penalty – no yellow card and no penalty try.  Referees have a very tough job at the top level, but this sort of decision is pretty is easy to make. It’s very poor officiating.

It is probably worth mentioning that a few minutes before this incident, Carley had sin binned Conor Murray. This shouldn’t have had an impact on the Zebo incident, but it in all likelihood it probably did influence his thought process.

This poor decision was a deciding factor in a game that ended 17-17.

 

(2) Leinster v Montpellier (Adam Byrne, Champions Cup – October 2017)

As Montpellier shift the ball to their left, the Leinster wing Adam Byrne steps in to block the pass.

Thanks to @smallclone for the gif.

At the point the ball is released and Byrne intercepts, the Montpellier player seems to have a clear run to the line, although Joey Carberry is just off screen to the left.

Leinster 1

Although Barnes asks the TMO for the wide angle, he only gets to see the same angle at the gif above shows, which means he can’t really judge where Carberry is in relation to the player who would have received the pass.

Even after the ball has bounced behind the Montpellier player, Carberry is still not in shot (see image below).

It was a strange call from Barnes to say there were defenders able to stop a try, and in the context of the game, a crucial decision.

leinster 2.jpg

 

(3) Saracens v Ospreys (Dan Evans,  Champions Cup – October 2017)

Saracens move the ball wide off phase play leaving 3 against 3, but Dan Evans is ball watching (or perhaps he doesn’t trust Fonotia inside him to make the tackle) and tries to step in, leaving his man unmarked on the wing.

In the still below we see Fonotia is a little flat footed, but he should still be in a position to make a tackle on the ball carrier. Evans then steps in.

dan evans comes in

It was always going to be difficult to claim the ball hit his arm in the tackle, when it is in the position we see in the image below.

Dan Evans hand out

Was Evans the last man and denied a try scoring opportunity? The still below shows this would probably have been the case. The referee, Marius Mitrea gave a penalty try and yellow card.

Dan evans defenders near

 

(4) Toulon v Brive (T14 – October 2017)

The Brive winger doesn’t trust his inside defence and steps in to take the ball carrier, leaving his opposite wing unmarked. He then realises he will be beaten by the pass and instinctively sticks his hand out to block the pass.  After consulting the TMO a penalty try was awarded and a yellow card.

 

Why are there so many of these incidents?

Perhaps this type of offence isn’t more common than in recent years, but it does seem that way.

In the examples shown it is usually the fault of the outside man not trusting, or communicating properly, with his inside defender. This element of doubt leads to him abandoning the player he should be marking to rush in to attack the ball carrier.

We know that professional rugby players often employ a wrap type tackle, when they know they are the last man, so this may explain why they step in so often. In the Dan Evans example we see him claim to the referee that he was just trying to make a tackle, even though he just stuck a hand out.

These examples also show referees sometimes get it right, but often get it wrong. With the advent of the TMO, these sorts of calls should be bread and butter for a top official, but in 2 of the examples shown here the referee made the wrong call.

Officials need to be brave in issuing both a yellow card and a penalty try, where the try would have been scored.

 

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Not for the squeamish – Halfpenny’s tackling technique

Since theblitzdefence came in to being, there have been a few phrases in our live match tweets that seem to keep re-occurring.   “Oh, no…. Cuthbert” is one favourite but another common comment is “that’s shocking tackling technique” from Halfpenny.

Sunday’s Toulon – Scarlets game was another opportunity to dust off the well used phrase, as Halfpenny launched his head at the knees of Toulon’s rampaging wing Josua Tuiosva (see video footage below and accompanying still) in a classic example of his deficient tackle technique.

Bad tacklers are often those who don’t want to make the tackle, but Halfpenny is one of the bravest players in rugby and that accusation can’t be levelled against him. What we can say however, is that his poor technique has (and is) putting him in danger of serious long term injury, if this hasn’t occurred already.

We thought we would look back through the archives at some of his worst tackles and see if there is a pattern to the incidents, or a possible explanation for his technique.

Here are 7 examples in chronological order, starting with last weekend’s European game.

 

 

(1) October 2017 (Toulon v Scarlets)

Halfpenny went off for a Head Injury Assessment (HIA) but returned to the field.

 

(2) March 2015 (Italy v Wales)

In attempting to tackle Italy’s Samuela Vunisa he was left dazed and was removed from the field for an HIA.

 

(3) November 2014 (Wales v South Africa)

A last ditch tackle on South African Etzebeth.

 

(4) March 2014 (England v Wales)

Halfpenny dislocated his right shoulder in this tackle and was out for about 4 months with the injury.

Halfpenny tackle v england.jpg

 

(5) October 2013 (Cardiff Blues v Toulon)

In this example he pulls out of the tackle but we can see the body shape and positioning.

 

(6) February 2013 (Wales v Ireland)

This is more of a head-on tackle and although the technique isn’t text book (he fails to clamp the legs and doesn’t get his shoulder in to O’Brien’s body), he does at least get his head on the right side of the attacker.

 

(7) December 2012 (Wales v Australia)

This incident resulted in Halfpenny having lengthy treatment on the field and taken to hospital for neck scans.

 

What’s he doing wrong?

The main issue with his technique is that he tackles with the wrong shoulder, which causes his head to come across the attacker’s body, rather than be tucked away behind his backside – out of the way of knees and other hard bits of the body.

This misalignment can sometimes happen if the ball carrier makes a sudden movement and the tackler doesn’t have time to adjust, but this doesn’t apply to Halfpenny in these examples, as there is little movement from the attacking player.  He seems to be deliberately lining up the tackle with the wrong shoulder.

 

Why is he doing this?

This is the tricky question. One theory is that he is protecting a damaged shoulder by tacking the contact at the tackle on the opposite shoulder (the “wrong one”).

In all but one of the examples above, it is his left shoulder that should be taking the contact, with the right shoulder free behind the carrier’s hips (clip 6 being the exception). What we see though is Halfpenny initiating contact with the right shoulder.

He has had a history of shoulder injuries, with a dislocation caused by the Burrell incident (clip 4), while in April 2015 he suffered a partial dislocation of the shoulder in Toulon’s game against Grenoble. This was also his right shoulder.

This means the “shoulder protection” theory doesn’t hold much water because even after a dislocation, he is still favouring that injured shoulder in contact. Shoulder dislocations are notoriously difficult to heal, which makes the decision to favour that side even more baffling. Does he have an older injury to the left shoulder that causes him even more problems than the dislocated side?

The other factor to consider in this theory is that some of these tackles pre-dated his dislocated shoulder against England. Again, is that related to a pre-existing injury which means he favours the right shoulder?

 

Any more theories?

Two more. One proposition is that by using a scrum cap he gives himself a false feeling of safety, which causes him to take more risks in the tackle ie put his head where he shouldn’t!

We know that scrum caps don’t protect against blows to the head when it comes to brain injury, indeed there are studies that show it may accentuate the risks.  Does the cap give Halfpenny some psychological boost that he can’t be injured in the head area, which means he puts his head where he wouldn’t without the cap?

The final theory is that he isn’t protecting his shoulder, he just favours the right shoulder as is natural with right handed players, but hasn’t developed his technique to overcome this deficiency.

To test this, try making a friendly rugby tackle against a family member and you will see your head automatically moves to the left and your right shoulder comes forward for contact (the opposite should be the natural position for someone who is left handed).

Most amateur or junior players will have this bias but they still know how to position their head and body, when tackling on their weak shoulder. For some reason Halfpenny doesn’t seem to have developed this technique and as a result he is putting his welfare at risk.

Anyone have any thoughts on this article or your own theories please let us know.

 

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Pro14 – the challenges facing the new league

First there was 12 and now there are 14. The addition of the 2 South African teams has been part of Pro Rugby chatter for some time, but the speed of their entry to the league has taken a lot of us by surprise.

If the coming together of the South African teams and the old Pro12 is a marriage, it is an arranged one – formed out of necessity rather than love or a great affection for each other. The Kings and Cheetahs have been kicked out of their current relationship and the Pro12 had a house available for them to move in to, with the promise of a bit of rent payable to ease the burden.

We are where we are, but the expanded league, along with the splitting of the 14 teams in to 2 conferences is a fundamental change which shouldn’t be understated. It has brought a number of challenges to the future success of the tournament which we have listed below:

 

(1) Rugby thrives on local, tribal battles

The most popular fixtures for supporters are usually those against close neighbours or teams with which there is historical context. Think Munster and Leinster or the Scarlets and Ospreys.

The South African teams are neither close in geographical terms nor is there any historical rivalry between these teams and the legacy Pro12 constituents. Would the average rugby fan in the northern hemisphere even know where the two SA teams are based or be able to name any players?

This lack of affiliation with the new entrants could be a problem when it comes to marketing and selling the games.

 

(2)  Conferences…..arggghhhhh

Splitting the 14 teams in to two conferences is a horrible arrangement that brings with it a number of complexities and issues. The first is that no longer will rival teams be able to compare their league positions as the season evolves, because they will often be in different conferences.

Splitting the two Scottish teams for example, means that no longer will Edinburgh supporters be able to compare their league position relative to their close rivals in Glasgow.  The Ospreys and Scarlets are also in different pools, so supporters won’t be able to cast a glance at the league table and see where the other team is placed.

 

(3)  Inherent inequalities

The conference arrangement introduces a number of intrinsic inequalities in to the league that threaten the integrity of the tournament. We will look at these in a bit more detail in another blog but let’s just take 1 example for this article – the relative strengths of each conference.

The teams have been chosen based on previous year’s performances but a quick glance at the conferences and one division looks stronger than the other. We may find during the season that perhaps 1 or 2 teams may under perform against their seeding which could impact the strength of that conference.

When all teams in a league play each other home and away each season the playing field is levelled out, but by splitting the teams in to conferences there will always be the perception (or perhaps reality) that one league is stronger than the other.

 

(4) Player welfare and the long season

Pity the Kings and Cheetahs. The Super Rugby season started back in the middle of February and the final league games were on the 14th July (the Kings played the Cheetahs in their final game).

Just 7 weeks later and both teams are now in the Pro14 and about to kick off another full season.

There is a lot of talk in rugby about player welfare and looking after those that play the game at the highest level but how are these messages consistent with asking the Kings and Cheetahs players to play rugby for nearly 13 months over a 15 month time period?

 

(5) The strength of the Kings and Cheetahs teams

One of the big unknowns is how the Kings and Cheetahs will perform on the pitch. They are not the strongest SA teams and with a long season already played this year and a great deal of travel there is a risk they will not be able to compete with the top teams in the Pro14.

Both teams have had a number of squad changes since the end of the Super Rugby season and with the South Africa Rugby Union looking to concentrate their resources in a smaller number of teams in Super Rugby, will the Pro14 teams be seen as second class citizens when it comes to player strength?

 

(6) The lack of a global rugby calendar

Rugby in the northern and southern hemispheres is played at different times of the year, making the addition of the South African teams a logistical nightmare.

How will rugby in South Africa be organised when 2 of the main teams are playing on a completely different calendar to the other Super Rugby teams? South Africa are currently playing in the Rugby Championship, so players will be pulled out for national team duty while the South African teams will be at full strength when the teams in the north will be depleted by their test windows being open.

How will the Currie Cup be affected by the 2 SA teams playing in the Pro14? The Cheetah’s Currie Cup team has 6 matches that overlap with the Pro14 commitments so how will they put out 2 teams thousands of miles apart at the same time? Either the Currie Cup will be devalued or the Pro14 team denuded of their best players.

Longer term, it looks completely impractical for a large percentage of South Africa’s players to be playing on a different calendar than the others and in particular the nation’s representative teams.

 

(7) Travel distances and costs

Yes, South Africa is pretty much on the same time zone as the other nations in the Pro14 but it is the length of travel that is often draining and physically demanding, particularly when this involves overnight flights.

The Pro14 organisers have tried to alleviate the travel costs for individual teams by paying these from a central budget but this is still a substantial amount. Last year the Scarlets travelled back from their away fixture in Glasgow by bus but this year they are flying to South Africa!

The Cheetahs are based in Bloemfontein and the Kings in Port Elizabeth; neither of which has direct flights to the UK, Ireland or Italy. The trips to South Africa (and to Europe coming the other way), will be physically demanding, with the South African teams spending a long time living in suitcases away from home.

 

(8) The Europe question

We know that the South African teams can’t gain entry to European competition next season but the odds are that a route for their inclusion will be opened up in the future.

Will more places be made available in European competition for the expanded Pro14 teams or will we see the same qualifying criteria as we currently see, which may result in a South African team taking the place of an Irish, Scottish or Welsh team in the top European competitions?

Will the SA teams  benefit from rest weeks when the other nations are battling it out in Europe?

 

 

Are the changes for the good?

Our view is that the upside of taking in the SA teams (a reported £600k per Pro12 team per year) is a reasonable sum, but nothing like the sort of money that will start to challenge the financial hegemony of the English and French leagues.

The danger is that the push for the short term financial upside leads to a longer term decline as supporters and viewers failed to buy in to the new “product”.

Super Rugby’s recent expansion in terms of number of teams and geographical reach has resulted in declining crowds and TV audiences, as viewers switch off citing a complex tournament, too many weak teams and a lack of affinity with a large number of their team’s opponents.

Celtic Rugby would do well to learn the lessons from Super Rugby’s expansion. There is a need to try and keep pace with the financial clout of the French and English leagues, but if this isn’t done carefully it could accelerate the league’s decline.

 

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Pro 14 Season Structure Explained

Hot on the heels (well nearly 2 years later) of our simple – but extremely popular, explanation of Gatland’s Law , theblitzdefence has done it again and distilled down the Pro14 season structure in to just 20 odd boxes and 15 arrows.

Why have we bothered? Well, not only has the Pro12 now become the Pro14 but the powers that be have decided to split the teams in to 2 conferences and made the structure unintelligible to the casual fan.

It isn’t always clear how home or away games are assigned but here we go:

pro14 structure1.jpg

pro14 structure 2.jpg

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