Pool of Death…..no,not again

As sporting clichés go, “pool of death” has to be right up there among the worst, and it would have been a minor miracle if we hadn’t heard it again when the Champions and Challenge Cup draws took place. It seems to be an immutable law that there will be a pool of death in every competition, and, with the Champions Cup now down to just 20 teams, there might just be more than one of them.

But it is not only “Pool of Death” rivals Bath, Leinster, Toulon and Wasps who have reason to feel let down following the European Rugby Champions Cup draw.
The confirmation of next season’s battle lines overshadowed the announcement that the Grand Stade de Lyon will host the final, with that honour passing to Murrayfield in 2017.

It will be the fourth time that France have staged club rugby’s showpiece event and the third time that it has been played in Scotland while Italy are yet to play host to the final.
It is understood that the FIR (Italian Rugby Federation) did not bid to stage the latest final –with officials perhaps too busy fighting fires on the home front, what with a threatened strike by their leading players or appeasing their PRO12 partners when it comes to their participation fees.

But their continued absence from the list of hosts remains a problem for European rugby chiefs that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. Italian sides may have struggled to make a significant impression on the competition but that does not excuse their marginalization when it comes to the final.

The Six Nations has shown that they are more than capable of hosting major rugby events and Italy’s sell-out clash against the All Blacks in 2009 illustrated that they are able to successfully market one-off games. Those facts should ease any commercial concerns and fears that the game may not sell out or catch the imagination of the wider sporting public.
Italian supporters and rugby fans in general would relish the opportunity to experience a final at somewhere like the Stadio Olimpico or the San Siro and it would boost the competition’s profile significantly.
If the FIR need a little help to get to that point it is time for their European partners to front up.

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

Rugby’s coming to America

It appears the Aviva Premiership is set to break new ground with the staging of a game overseas next season. It is rumoured London Irish are poised to take their traditional St. Patricks Day game to New York as part of a three-year deal between Premiership Rugby and USA Rugby designed to boost the profile of the sport on both sides of the Atlantic.

Super Rugby has of course already ventured down this route, although in different circumstances, with the Crusaders tackling the Sharks at Twickenham back in 2011 in the wake of the Christchurch earthquake. A crowd of 35,000 were lured to HQ that day and Irish will no doubt hope to tap into the Irish-American community for the New York fixture, but talk of an 80,000 sell-out at a venue like MetLife Stadium appears a bit fanciful.

It is all very exciting but what about the Exiles’ fans? Crowds were once again disappointing at Irish’s 24,000-seater Madejski Stadium home last season, with the attendance exceeding 8,000 just four times in the league – including the highly popular St Patricks Day game.

The All Blacks piqued interest within the sporting US public, as illustrated by the huge crowd at Chicago’s Soldier Field for last November’s game against the Eagles, but London Irish and whoever their scheduled opposition will not be such as easy sell.

Would the money and effort not be better spent in attracting new fans on Premiership Rugby’s doorstep, and who might continue to support the team long after the proposed game in New York? The Premiership final may continue to attract the masses to Twickenham but that is not reflected week in, week out at many Premiership grounds where the sport does not appear to matter enough to enough people.
Those fans that regularly rattle around the Madejski and are treated to an under-performing side are “rewarded” with the chance to fork out for what will not be a cheap jaunt across the Pond.
But with Saracens and Leicester also heading Stateside in the off-season, and probably more regular season games poised to be switched, it is something fans should get used to –or at least start saving for.

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

Abolish these Championship play-offs

You would not have dared write the script. Chris Pennell, Worcester’s favourite son and a man who stood by them throughout relegation, scores a last minute try , and Ryan Lamb nervelessly slots the conversion to draw the game on the night, and give Worcester a one point win on aggregate over the two legs of the Championship final.
In terms of pure drama, it was right up there with anything we have seen in the sport. But the utter devastation and disbelief on the faces of the Bristol players painted an entirely different picture.
That only one of Worcester or Bristol could be promoted is immeasurably cruel and even more so when you consider that it is heartbreak for Bristol in the final second for a second season in a row. But really, they should never have been in this situation again.

Play-offs in the Premiership can be explained away – the final has become a true spectacle and draws in the crowds, and the money. It also offsets the times in the calendar when some sides have players away on international duty, meaning you still have a shot at the title even if all your top players are missing for swathes of the season and you suffer a blip in form.
Neither of those arguments apply to the Championship. The final is played over two legs, at the homes of the two finalists, serving only to add one extra gate’s takings to the coffers. A drop in the ocean compared to a season in the Premiership, of course. And 99% of the players in the league do not receive call-ups for international periods.

This season, almost from week one, it has been obvious that Bristol and Worcester would occupy the top two spots. Knowing the play-off system, it becomes almost pointless who finishes first and who second-which surely just makes a mockery of the league system in itself.
Bristol beat Worcester home and away in the regular season-to turn around and then say they have to do it again in a play-off competition is both bonkers and unnecessary-have they not already proved themselves to be better?
Bristol should have been promoted last year, after walking the league season. That would, in all likelihood, have led Worcester doing the same this season, and both would be competing in the Premiership next year. Instead, Bristol will have to go through the motions for another nine months to get to another play-off final, and the only couple of really meaningful games in their season.

The Premiership ring-fencing is a debate for another time, but the scrapping of the Championship play-off system is one that should be had now.

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk