Posts Tagged ‘European Rugby’

Zebre kicked off their Champions Cup campaign against Wasps the past weekend in the Ricoh Arena, Coventry. The Champions Cup is a competition in which the best clubs in Europe get to compete against each other for the ultimate prize in northern hemisphere club rugby. Yet it includes a team that has struggled to compete in its own league since joining.

Zebre scored two tries against Wasps: a driving maul when they had a forward in the bin (which is slightly worrying for Wasps when they face a higher calibre of opposition) and an interception. But they also conceded twelve.

History in the competition proves that a group containing an Italian side usually produces the best runner up for the knockout phases of the competition. This is a very polite way of saying the Italian teams are the whipping boys of the competition. 

Many people took to Twitter saying these teams shouldn’t be involved in the competition, which proves it’s not just an afterthought on a Saturday afternoon. It’s a genuine problem.

I asked earlier in the day if having one centralised team would improve the situation, such as the Jaguares in Argentina. Most agreed, few didn’t.


One argument was that many said the same of Connacht for years; they were once the whipping boys of the Celtic and Magners league, but look at them now. Surely Zebre and Treviso could come alive in the same manner as Connacht? I agree; maybe one of them could. But not both. Another argued that a number of weeks ago, Zebre very nearly beat the current Pro 12 champions in Italy. Which is also true. But unfortunately for them, the game was called off, and all the history books will say is that the game was called off to be replayed. Nothing more.

Zebre will have learned a couple of lessons on Saturday: their defence needs work, they need to be fitter, they have to work harder than their opposition to have any sort of chance. All very glaringly obvious lessons. But these lessons they learn week in, week out, in the Pro 12. What happened was that Wasps simply embarrassed them. Considering they also have Connacht and Toulouse in their group, it’s not like they’ll be reaching the knockout stages this year.

Before anyone jumps on me for counting unhatched chickens, I know European miracles happen. I was at the Munster Gloucester Miracle Match. I’ll never forget the second-half comeback by Leinster in their final against Northampton. Even Saracens win away to Toulon on Saturday could be chalked up. But we’re not comparing like with like.

Munster, at that stage, were a team well versed in grinding out victories. Leinster were a team peppered with Grand Slam winners and international stars. Saracens did the double last year. Zebre? They almost beat Connacht.

I understand the necessity of having an Italian team in the competition; it is a European cup; it has to include them. But the Challenge Cup is also European.

The winners of last year’s Challenge Cup, Montpellier, narrowly lost out to Northampton on Saturday. The other finalists from last year, Harlequins, hammered Stade Francais on Friday night in the Challenge Cup (to add to the argument, Stade were the French Top 14 champions just a couple of years ago).

In my eyes and the eyes countless others, there’s no way Wasps would have put 12 tries past either Harlequins or Montpellier, no matter how good or bad a day either team were having.

Maybe I’m being tough focusing on Zebre alone, so a quick mention on Treviso this weekend-they conceded 41 points to La Rochelle in the Challenge Cup. Hardly inspiring either.

I want to point out that I am not laying the blame at all on Zebre or Treviso. Their players, coaching staff, and backroom staff, do their very best every weekend, and of course they’re going to take the opportunity to play amongst Europe’s elite when offered. Why wouldn’t they?

But it simply isn’t fair to them or to teams not drawn in their group. Wasps against Zebre and Gloucester (who hammered Bayonne) against Treviso just shouts “5 points! Get your five points here!”, with other clubs fighting on a weekly basis to qualify.

Is there a way around it?

The Italian federation could amalgamate both teams, with a central base in Rome. With money invested the correct way, and guidance from a Graham Henry type figure (much like was done in Argentina) on the structures that should be in place academy wise, they’d become a much stronger force. There is bound to be a ground in Rome willing to share a venue, and the gate would probably take in a substantial amount. But that’s a pipe dream.

Another idea, presented by @TheBlack_n_Red, and I’m sure shared by others, suggested that all Champions Cup spots be down to league position and not preassigned spots to include every country. This would mean teams are qualifying off their own success every time. I don’t think many would be too happy with that system, as four Irish teams finished in the top six last year, which would have left only two places for Wales, Scotland, and Italy.

But how about having Zebre and Treviso compete in the Challenge Cup until such a time that they can compete with the big boys. I know the Champions Cup wouldn’t have an Italian representative, but it would make it more what it’s meant to be, which is a competition of Europe’s elite. And the Italian teams would still be competing in a European competition.

To fill the void of the missing team, both finalists of the Challenge Cup should qualify (or have the opportunity to qualify) for the Champions Cup, rather than just the one.

It would make the Champions Cup more competitive, eliminate the “easy points” in certain groups, and both Italian teams would be learning more, rather than being embarrassed by teams like Wasps.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe a miracle will happen and I’ll be forced to admit defeat. But as they say, David and Goliath was a once off; the smart money is always on the giant.

Advertisements

Borrowing A Solution

Posted: September 21, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

image

With the Rugby World Cup now dominating every second conversation, the subject of the TMO is never far away. It seems that the video referee is being called on for everything and anything. Games are stopped, clear tries are questioned, every second tackle or ruck clearout is brought into dispute. The majority of referees are no longer backing their own decisions.

The first half of the England Fiji world cup opener stretched on for 52 minutes, and didn’t offer the electric rugby that fans spent (a lot of) their money on. 12 minutes of replays for the fans, with 12 minutes of players’ intensity and concentration slipping away.

For anyone not in the Millennium Stadium on Sunday, referee Romain Poite was booed when calling upon the TMO. To his credit, a try was clearly knocked on and subsequently disallowed. On the other hand, play was stopped while Wales had possession, an illegal clearout by Uruguay was shown on the screen, and Wales kicked the penalty to touch. The whole process took over two minutes, and as a result Wales had a lineout 15 yards from where play was stopped. What a waste of time.

The IRB will need to bring about some changes to the system, but which? Nobody wants poor refereeing decisions due to lack of evidence, nor do they want constant stoppages. In my opinion, a simple solution could be to imitate the ideas of another sport. In cricket, a video referee may be used by the officials in order to make correct decisions on tough calls, much like rugby. But added to that, both captains are offered two appeals.

image

In Layman’s terms, a captain can choose to appeal a referee’s decision twice a game. If he is correct in his appeal, he still has two further opportunities to appeal a decision. However, if he is wrong, he loses one opportunity and only has one further appeal. That appeal can be used immediately, at the end of the game, or not at all. But in a close game, it would have to be used wisely.

If applied to rugby, this rule could save everyone an abundance of TMO decisions, and the honestly of the players would come to the forefront of the game. Players would no longer run back to halfway knowing they will have to return for a scrum or 22 drop out after three minutes of pointless deliberation. Players would no longer badger the referee in the hope he’ll see an infraction in the phases leading up to the try. They themselves would be forced to admit: yes or no, try or no try. If they were positive and adamant they were correct, then cash in their appeal.

In addition, the referee would still have the TMO option at their disposal, but this implementation would only work if the referees start backing their own decisions and interpretations of what they saw. The referee’s decision is final, and teams can bemoan or celebrate him or her afterwards, just like in past years. Fans would be rewarded with fewer replays, the intensity of the game would remain high, and the concentration level of the players would not diminish.

Perhaps this system may cause some consternation, and a number of fans may or not be satisfied with the new process. But if it stopped the abomination that is 52 minutes for one half of rugby due to constant replays, how bad an option could it be.

Rave reviews regarding northern hemisphere rugby poured in after the last Saturday of the six nations championship this year. Wales ran in try after try, followed by Ireland and England alike. It seemed the days of boring kick-and-maul rugby were ending.

The final day of the Rabo league proved to be much of the same. David Kelly wrote in today’s Irish Independent that “rugby should consider getting rid of the coaches altogether and just let the players at it”. He’s not too far wrong it would seem.

I watched the Munster game in a pub with friends on Saturday. One arrived after twenty-odd minutes, and on asking how they were playing, was shocked to hear that Munster had the bonus point already. Not only that, but the Dragons had two tries to their name themselves. Six tries in 24 minutes. Happy days.

But what made it brilliant to watch was that the game wasn’t thrown into a sevens-like event; the structure of the game was kept and players stuck to their strengths. In other words, Munster forwards still utilised their maul while Conor Murray and Keith Earls ran the show in the back line.

The Ospreys continued the trend and had three tries scored by half time. Granted, Connacht aren’t a team famous for running rugby, but they managed a scoreline of 24-20, and could have won if it wasn’t for a poor first half. 24-0 was the halftime score, which highlights how hard they worked in the second half.

A Leinster team with three fringe players scored 36 points against Edinburgh, with five tries to boot. Given their poor run of form this season, five tries is no mean feat against any team, especially given their lacklustre performance last weekend against Treviso.

Whereas Ulster failed to ignite much, Glasgow enjoyed a good victory at home running in four tries and earning a bonus point. Glasgow are the team tipped to win this year’s playoffs and given the season they’ve enjoyed, it’s no wonder. They love to throw the ball about and their forwards are just as comfortable on the ball as their backs. Townsend has done a fantastic job with them. And with Taqele Naiyaravoro joining from the Force, they’re only going to get better.

For years southern hemisphere teams have been saying that northern rugby is boring. We rely too much on our kickers and not on scoring tries. New Zealand Maori team have gone on record in previous interviews that at training the coach will sometimes throw players a ball and just let them at it-no moves, no set calls, just playing. The skills they learn from playing off the cuff rugby have become an integral part to their game. Geordon Murphy wrote in his book that these sort of skill games should be introduced in under-age rugby in a bid to develop these skills. New Zealand forwards have always been comfortable ball carrying and offloading out of the tackle. Just look at Sam Whitelock’s try for the Crusaders a fortnight ago-he has no problem relying on his running ability.

But northern hemisphere rugby is catching up. The days of “taking your points”, the 3-6-9 leads through penalties, are slowly fading away. They will never be completely gone as winning comes first. But teams are starting to throw caution to the wind, especially when the points margin comes into effect. This years Six Nations and Rabo have shown us that teams can play fantastic rugby when push comes to shove. Long may it continue.

A lot has been written in the papers lately about Leinster’s end of season campaign to finish on a high. It seems that players are all singing off the same hymn sheet, that a strong end to the season will put them in a good place for next year. In one way it’s true; it’s the final few games of the season that will be remembered. But what will impact on them more are their failures.

Leinster have become the best Irish provincial side in the last six years. Granted, they have lost games to other provinces during that run, but they’ve won more competitions, and that’s what counts. In the last few years, Leinster have based their success on silverware, much like Munster have in the years previous.

Leinster now need to finish in the top six of the Rabo to secure a place in next year’s Champions Cup. Odds are they’ll do it (they face Benetton Treviso tonight), and will no doubt be one of the favourites to win in 2016, as they were in previous years. In terms of getting into next year’s competition, it will be a case of mission complete. But that alone is a poor return for their season. Jordi Murphy has stated in today’s Irish Independant that “the focus of finishing in the top six is keeping us all on our toes”. This is not the sort of team Leinster have fought to become. This is not the mentality they worked so hard to shape. A top six finish should be guaranteed regardless.

Winning the last game of the season will not be enough for these players. When you think of the quality of the Leinster team along with the highs they’ve experienced in the past, it’s not hard to see why. Let’s look at two Heineken cup finals in particular.

Down and out at half time against a strong Northampton Saints side, Leinster managed one of the greatest comebacks in the tournament’s history. Many other teams would have played that second half trying to salvage some pride-Leinster played it to win, and did. Fast forward a few years later to their final against Ulster. From their form, many were tipping Ulster to finally reclaim the Heineken cup for the second time. They were playing well and had been all season. That day in Twickenham, they were absolutely dominated from start to finish, and the final score reflected it. These are the games these Leinster players are used to. Not qualifying-deciders against Treviso.

You would also have to wonder what will happen with Matt O’Connor. His style of play has not worked well, nor has he been a crowd favourite, even though he won a Rabo title last year and nearly coached the team to victory over Toulon. You would have to feel sorry for him. Rob Penney suffered the same fate when he stepped up to coach Munster; his brand of rugby was not what the Thomond Park faithful were used to seeing, and he was heavily criticised for his first season.

But O’Connor has been an unpopular choice for too long, and beating Treviso to qualify for Europe next year probably won’t be enough to save him. He didn’t have Sexton or the ever-mentioned O’Driscoll like his predecessor, but nor did a lot of teams this year, and five are probably going to finish ahead of them. With the return of Sexton and Nacewa next year, Leinster will enjoy having more fire-power in their back line, even if it means the likes of Dave Kearney or Luke Fitzgerald’s game time suffers. But will O’Connor be the man to call the shots?

A win over Treviso tonight and finishing in the top six could be deemed a salvaged season by some. But rugby is now more professional than ever, and seasons are now based on trophies and medals. In those terms, Leinster have failed, regardless of what hymn sheet players are singing off.

A fear that has always resonated with players is that moving abroad would remove them from international contention. They feared that the coach would not see them play, would not travel to their games, or would simply choose to trust who they saw play week in week out at home. But, for a lot of players who are in-form and playing well, location was never a factor.

For example, overseas Irish players have long been welcomed into the national set-up. Tommy Bowe (Ospreys), Eoin Reddan (Wasps), Keith Wood (Harlequins), Simon Easterby (Scarletts) and Johnny O’Connor (Wasps) all earned international caps while plying their trade abroad, just to name a few. For the last few years, Ireland’s and, arguably, Europe’s leading flyhalf played with Racing Metro. The fact Sexton’s club was based in France never cost Schmidt a thought.

Recently, Australia have brought in a change to their eligibility laws which will allow certain overseas players to represent the Australian national team. The change states that “effective immediately, overseas-based players will now be eligible for Qantas Wallabies selection if they have played more than 60 Tests for Australia and have held a professional contract with Australian Rugby for at least seven years” (taken from rugby.com.au).

Basically, this means the likes of Drew Mitchell and Matt Giteau will more than likely represent their country in September. It also means Adam Ashley-Cooper will be able to represent Australia after his move at the end of the season (obviously as long as he stays in form). Additionally, their fellow internationals are free to pursue more lucrative contracts and still wear the Wallaby crest (as long as they fulfill the necessary criteria).

You also just need to look at how many caps Pienaar has earned for the Springboks while playing with Ulster. It would seem that the player is more important than his club location.

But as it stands, an English clubmate of Giteau and Mitchell is in doubt of selection for this year’s World Cup because he is based in France.

Steffon Armitage is the starting openside flanker for Europe’s leading  club side. He was awarded the Heineken Cup Player of the Tournament for last year’s competition and is in contention for the same award this year. He has been magnificent since (and before) signing with the three-time European champions but Stuart Lancaster cannot select him because of where he plays his rugby.

Going into a World Cup, you want not only the best starting XV possible, but also the best squad. If it were my decision, as Robshaw is captain, Armitage would simply start blindside. He would be just as effective and efficient, and would add ball-carrying and ground-work to the English pack. He is a better poacher than Haskell, and I think a smarter player.

England need to look at this rule of selecting home-based players and ask themselves is it benefitting them internationally in the long run. Armitage’s rugby curriculum vitae now speaks for itself. He would be nothing but a benefit for a World Cup squad. Although “Slamming” Sam Burgess has put in a few stints in the Bath engine room, it would be reckless to include him ahead of Armitage in terms of the pack, even at Saxons’ level.

Reviewing this selection issue would also bring other internationals out of the wilderness, most noticeably Nick Abendonen. Although he made a try-awarding mistake at the end of the first half on Saturday, he enjoyed a good run of form this season for Clermont in the Top 14 and European campaign. In my opinion he is England’s second best 15 behind Mike Brown. Arguments could be made for Delon Armitage, but given his character and previous behaviour, I don’t think Lancaster would opt for him.

Put simply, these players’ international careers should not be punished for playing the best rugby of their careers outside of the Premiership.

A lot had been said in the build up to this year’s newly formatted Champions Cup final. People stated their dislike of the fact Toulon were not only in the final, but going for three-in-a-row. An understandable thought. I, too, feel they are ruining the European competition by simply buying the trophy.

Gone are the days when average players formed a well organised, well drilled team. In are the days when a team of individuals can outdo their opposite man from one to 15. Everyone would like to see their own team in the final, and are angered that Toulon’s financial power are putting an end to that.

I was annoyed that Munster got such a tough group, and annoyed that they failed to reach European knockout stages for the first time in 17 years. But I did want to see the best players in Europe on show for the final, and that’s what Saturday delivered.

The skills were on show from the first minute, when a two on two became a mismatch when Abendonen rounded one Toulon defender, drew another and delivered a perfect one-handed pass to Nalaga to send him on his way. Granted, Nalaga should have made more of it, but what a start.

Drew Mitchell’s deciding try was simply sublime. The Clermont defense did miss six tackles, but the strength and guile of Mitchell is not to be knocked. Thanks to the ARU’s new rules regarding caps and service to Australian rugby, we should definitely be treated to Mitchell and Giteau on the world stage later this year.

So good were the players on show that three mistakes were punished with 100% effectiveness, with two of the three cost Clermont the game.

Abendonen had a fine game. Given the financial power of Clermont it was strange to see him being signed, but he seems to be a good fit with the players of Stade Michelin. But his actions at the end of the first half were naive and foolhardy. With the chance to finish the half two points ahead of the best club side in the world, he chooses to play from outside his 22. He tries a chip, but doesn’t retrieve. There’s no defensive line as his teammates thought he was going to clear, and Bastareau goes over in the corner for Halfpenny to convert. A silly mistake punished completely by great play. Wilkinson said turning his back and kicking the ball dead would have shown fear-I think it would have been the right call.

The next mistake came from Noa Nakaitaci. Turning to catch a ball, he drops it, and after it bounces to touch he throws it away from Habana in frustration. A clear penalty that gave Halfpenny, one of the best kickers of a dead ball in world rugby, another chance for three points. What’s worse is Nakaitaci did everything right: he chased back, was in position, and turned his body rather than risk a knock on. His mistake of indiscipline was out of sheer frustration, and was punished by the best goal kicker in Europe.

Clermont went from leading by two points just before half time to losing by 8 after 50 minutes. Two mistakes, two scores for Toulon.

The third mistake came from Habana’s poor clearance and Toulon’s defence failing to notice Halfpenny had chased. This led to Abendonen’s chip and chase try. He ran the ball back, easily evaded a slip-off tackle and chipped and scored so easily it seemed like the game had been stopped momentarily. Extraordinary finishing from a simple mistake, and also making up for his foolish mistake earlier.

Perhaps the game would have also been different had Brock James started ten. He would have directed the game better and added more structure than the off the cuff Lopez. But on the other hand, how many games has he lost his nerve in in the past? Not to mention the game would have also been dead and buried had Parra been called offside for the block for Fofana’s try and had Ali Williams been awarded a try for a fingertip touch down. On such fine measures are finals won.

The final of a European cup should have the best players in Europe on show. Yesterday was case and point. Three mistakes being punished with perfect execution, along with Mitchell’s masterclass in broken field running, is proof.