Aviva Premiership benefits from our chaotic calendar

There has been a lot of talk this season about rugby’s messy schedule. Concerns over a lack of alignment between the hemispheres, internationals in the middle of the season, the sheer number of games players are involved in and the length of the Six Nations tournament are all concerns for the men at the top.

Sir Clive Woodward recently proposed a five-week tournament, in order to better mirror the knock-out stages of a World Cup. There is also a concern that the tournament robs the Premiership clubs of their players for too long.

Because of the added fallow weeks, that is seven weeks the clubs lose their top players over the Six Nations. There is a further four weeks over the Autumn Internationals, not to mention the various training camps. Most importantly of all, it equates to seven missed premiership matches. That is a third of the season and a possible 35 points up for grabs. To put that in context, Saracens finished last season on 80 points. 32 below them were Bath in ninth.

There was a stark reminder of the situation recently as Gloucester downed the defending champions Saracens, Sale defeated the current table-toppers Wasps, and Newcastle completed their double over east-midlands heavyweights Northampton Saints. Even second from bottom Worcester also beat Saracens. Back during the autumn series, Newcastle claimed an important win against Harlequins and that first against Northampton, and Wasps lost to Gloucester.

The clubs are financially compensated for the loss of their players – with a figure in excess of £200 million agreed between clubs and country – but there is still murmurings about devaluing the game for the fans, not to mention the ‘fair’ aspect; how can we have a tournament where the best teams lose their best players for a third of the matches? When the English football side play competitive internationals there are no Premiership or even Championship matches scheduled.

I will be honest – I don’t care. The crazy, messed up schedule with international players coming and going, is part of the reason to love the Premiership. It levels the playing field just the right amount and stops an elite few running away with it. The bottom teams go into these matches with a glint in their eyes. They know the best are there to be beaten when they are missing those one or two players that separate them from the rest. It also means the best teams cannot rest on their laurels – during the internationals they are exposed and there is an opportunity, not just for their opponents, but for their rivals to gain ground on them.

The play-offs also take care of the ‘fair’ criticism to a certain extent. The occasional loss by the top teams does not necessarily cost them the trophy, they must instead ensure they finish in the top four and all is to play for come May. It may split the difference for a team with regard to fourth versus fifth, or a home or away play-off place, or indeed a spot in the Champions cup, but no system is perfect.

Perhaps more importantly, it also is invaluable for bringing through emerging players. There is the Anglo-Welsh Cup and that plays a role in giving exposure to young players, but it is treated with such disdain by most clubs that often they are little better than b-fixtures anyway. They are definitely not the same as playing in a Premiership game.

I understand the reasons people are calling for the rugby season to be changed – particularly when it comes to player welfare and the madness that the best players may have as little as six weeks off playing to let their bodies recover before preseason starts. And of course, this is a myopic Premiership centred view – it impacts some of the clubs in the Pro12 far more acutely (how are Glasgow expected to be competitive when they lose 15 players to the Scottish squad?).

But I for one like the chaos it brings to the Premiership. It creates the environment for giant-killings by the bottom clubs and the international stars of the future to get proper and sustained exposure to top level rugby. Everyone wins like this.

Mike Miles

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Six Nations:Can seven weeks equal five?

Scotland no doubt welcomed a rest this weekend after their gruelling encounter against France in Paris, during which four players sustained concussion and Greig Laidlaw limped off after 24 minutes with an ankle injury that ended his Six Nations. Three others had to be replaced because of injuries – so what shape would the side be in were the third round taking place last weekend , as has been suggested during the debate on the global calendar?

The Scots would have had six days to prepare for Wales, who themselves had a short turnaround for last weekend’s match against England after opening in Rome on the Sunday.

The argument for the Six Nations to be played over successive weekends is that it would free up space later in the season, that it could kick off in the latter part of February and replicate the World Cup, when the semi-finalists will play seven matches in six weeks or less. It is being championed by Premiership Rugby, which, under its agreement with the Rugby Football Union, cannot recall England players on the two fallow weekends during the championship.

The Southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship takes a week longer than the Six Nations as sides play six matches on a home and away basis. It is played in three blocks of two weekends and has two fallow weekends. It does not serve as a direct comparison because of the considerably greater traveling distances.

All matches in the Rugby Championship, though, are played on a Saturday. Were the Six Nations to be played in one go, would six-day turnarounds, especially after the first couple of rounds, enhance the tournament? As has already been seen this year, England have the strength in depth to cope with injury problems that wipe out half their pack, but the Celtic nations and Italy cannot.

A five-week tournament would be to England’s advantage, although would Premiership Rugby modify its agreement with the RFU regarding the call-up of players into the England squad if there were injuries in one or two positions? The Celts have the advantage of being able to add to their squads at will, although they lose control of their exiled players during the fallow weekends.

While teams have to play more matches in a similar period during the World Cup, they can often have two games against weaker opponents, when they are able to rotate their squad. And they have three months to prepare for the tournament rather than the couple of weeks they have for the Six Nations, when teams go into camp on the back of two European rounds. Saracens’ England internationals had full-on encounters with Toulon and the Scarlets before joining up with their international team-mates and a five-week Six Nations would require a greater lead-in period and a break for the players at the end.

Would it make a meaningful difference to the shape of the European season other than to keep the cameras rolling? When World Rugby started the talks over a global calendar, it said its main aim was player welfare. A five-week Six Nations would lead to sides hoping they drew Italy on the third weekend so they could – as England will at Twickenham in the next round – use the fixture to rotate.

An alternative is to look at the championship itself. It is 17 years since Italy joined, but recent results in the Six Nations show they are not keeping pace: they have conceded 40 points or more in eight of their last 14 matches. Scotland have done so twice in that period and France once.

A reversion to the old Five Nations, backed up by a second division, would be a way of playing the tournament over five weeks with the two matches each round scheduled on Saturdays. Every team would have a free weekend, although two, the ones who sat out the opening and final rounds, would play their games in one block.

It won’t happen, not so much because of what it would do for the Italian game (Italy are 14th in the world rankings, two places below Georgia) but because it would mean the loss of a home match every two years for the other five, on top of television getting fewer matches.

Recently the chief executive of the Six Nations ruled out promotion and relegation, but in doing so merely reinforced the impression that it is an archaic closed shop, more dedicated to making money for the unions than encouraging proper, meaningful competition.

What must scare the living daylights out of the organisers is the nightmare scenario where one of the big five had a really bad year, got the wooden spoon, and lost in any relegation play-off. Just imagine the furore if that happened, and their place was taken by one of the “minnows”.

Knocking on the Six Nations door

So the Six Nations draws to its close, as did the European Nations’ Cup. Georgia won their ninth title in 10 years by beating their similarly unbeaten rivals Romania.

Meanwhile Italy headed to Cardiff for another heavy beating at the hands of Wales. Would Italy definitely beat the Georgians in a notional promotion/relegation play-off?

A week earlier Ireland ran in nine tries against the Italians. So once more their protected Six Nations status is up for review. But should the question really be about Italy, who have provided some magical moments over the last 17 years (and Rome remains a wonderful place to visit) and deserve their chance to shine on European rugby’s biggest stage. But then Georgia and Romania would love the opportunity to show what they can do against rugby’s big boys on a regular basis.

We saw with Argentina’s World Cup campaign last autumn that there is no substitute for regular exposure to the bigger teams, which they have gained from playing in the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship.

If the powers that be are serious about growing the world game, the Six Nations’ cosy self-appointed club must be overhauled.Conor O’Shea may well come in and oversee a swift turnaround in Italy’s fortunes. But that should not change the fact that the current state of affairs is unfair. Far better a two-group system featuring promotion and relegation, which does not just protect the interests of the current six. The Six nations’ closed-shop stance simply cannot last indefinitely.

The Six Nations committee evidently sees its responsibilities as the promoters of an event rather than the game, commerce as a priority above long-term development of European rugby, and while that remains the case England, Jones and everyone else are operating within the restrictions that it applies.

If the Six nations took a broader view it might start with bonus points, then tackle Italy-Georgia, promotion, relegation and the championship format, and then ask: how else can the game be improved?

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

Six Nations thoughts on Friday Night Lights

I was one of the several millions in front of their T.V. set last Friday night watching a less than enthralling match between hosts Wales and France in Cardiff. Wales seem to have drawn the wrong end of the TV straw when it comes to hosting Friday evening games.
Last week’s was the sixth Six Nations Friday night match, the fifth in Cardiff, and Wales have featured in all six. The Principality Stadium, to give it its current moniker, is unique in being located in the heart of the Welsh capital. But getting there and home is a problem, especially with the usual Friday night revelry to contend with.
Given the experiences of last autumn’s World Cup, there would appear to be no sound logistical reasons for England not taking their turn to host a Friday game. Traffic and commuting are the hurdles commonly cited with Twickenham – so that match against Fiji last September could prove to be a one-off.
Gareth Davies, chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union, told the Guardian, “We appreciate that Friday is the busiest commuter day of the week, and there have been public transport issues after matches in Cardiff.” Davies was once head of BBC Wales Sport and accepts that these fixtures are here to stay, but that other nations have to accept the load.
“Everyone has to accept that the days of all matches being played on a Saturday afternoon are gone. The television deal means matches on Fridays (and Sundays) are here to stay.”
For most of its history all Six/Five/Four Nations matches kicked off at the same time on a Saturday afternoon before broadcasters, and that means the BBC, staggered the games so all of them could be shown live. Sunday matches have been around since the 1990’s and are even less popular with travelling fans than Friday kick-offs.
But since when did the views of the fans matter? But organisers must be concerned that fans faced with Friday night hassle will decide to stay at home and watch the game on TV.
The professional protagonists on the pitch are used to playing club games at a variety of times and days of the week. Wales lock Alun Wyn Jones intimated as such when describing Friday night games as “horses for courses.”
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing ultimately,” he added. “Friday night lights can be a special thing.”
These matches are here to stay. The WRU in particular cannot afford to turn a blind eye to such a revenue stream – especially now with potential roof repairs to pay for.

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

Its a try so Stop the Clock

Ever since time-keeping in rugby union was taken off the referee and put into the hands of someone on the touchline some matches have inevitably ended in an unsatisfactory manner.
At the end of Wales’s victory over Scotland at Murrayfield last season why did referee Glen Jackson waste seconds at the end by trying to hear via his earpiece how many seconds were left on the clock after Finn Russell’s conversion had reduced the home side’s deficit to three points.
When Russell’s conversion went over there were some seven seconds remaining, which would have been eaten up by the time Wales reached the halfway line. Jackson blew for full time, much to the disgust of Scotland who felt there was time for the restart.

Rugby union uses the countdown clock, which gives players, spectators and the television audience certainty – most of the time. Football uses a different method, one which keeps the referee in charge of time by declaring what the minimum period for stoppages will be. (Plus of course any “Fergie Time”.). That would be harder in rugby because some halves go 10 or more minutes over the 40; a minimum of five or six could easily swell to nine or ten with more stoppages – generating confusion rather than clarity.

Time-keeping has developed in the professional era so that, for example, when scrums keep dropping and the referee feels the need to have a word with the front rows, the clock stops; the same when players are replaced.
Yet it keeps ticking when a kicker is lining up a conversion even though the ball is, to all intents and purposes,dead;all the opposition can do is try to charge it down but they cannot take possession. Why does the clock not stop when a try has been scored? There were nine tries in the England /Scotland match last March, which effectively meant some nine minutes were eaten up by conversion attempts.
Once a try is scored the ball is dead and the clock should be stopped until the restart is taken.
Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

Are you being turned on to Rugby by the Six Nations ?

Virtually every day my email reminds me how few days remain until the World Cup, and proudly promises me the best World Cup ever. But on the evidence of the Six Nations so far it will take one hell of a leap of the imagination to believe that promise.
The Six Nations Championship is meant to be the shop window of European rugby union, the time for the casual rugby fan to pause and see if the product is one to catch the eye. And in a home World Cup year this is even more the case.

In my opinion the tournament is damaged goods. Those buying into rugby expect pace, excitement, some up-tempo sport – and tries… Instead the sport is relying on advertising and marketing to fool as many of the people for as much of the time as possible.
Perhaps the World Cup will be the biggest party, the best organised, and perhaps it will make the financial profits promised as the ad men flog the sport for all it is worth.
But the grim truth on the field is that the Six Nations is delivering some of the most static sport imaginable. Purists may have looked appreciatively at Ireland’s tactical mastery against England, but to this fan, putting my English rose to one side, there was nothing to entice me further into rugby’s tent to see what the sport has to offer.

Steve Hansen, the New Zealand Word Cup-winning coach, was in Europe a few weeks ago. He watched Wales’s 20-13 victory over France, and England’s 19-9 defeat by Ireland in Dublin. As a reward for the price of his air fare and match tickets Hansen saw three tries. He may have stopped short of asking for his money back, but in an interview with the Western Mail, the former Wales coach expressed his fears that spectators will be less likely to part with their money unless the game’s attacking talents are seen more often “I’ve actually got big concerns about the game at the moment, because there are not enough tries being scored, which is turning the fans away,” Hansen said.
There is seldom a time when rugby is not ruminating about some aspect or other of its arcane laws, but for a sport with ambitions of pushing back its participatory and geographical boundaries, Hansen’s words should strike a particularly harsh chord, with the World Cup only six months away.
“We are about to go into a showpiece for the game,” he said. “There are millions of people watching it and all you are going to see is people kick goals.”

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

Six Nations to Pay Television?

The Six Nations is inviting bids from pay television when it starts talking about the deal that will replace the one it has with the BBC in 2018.There was an admission by the Six nations committee that there was no guarantee the tournament would remain available to all those who own a television set, and that it could go the way of Test cricket and Open golf.

The step is expected and has long been mooted. Three of the four home unions need the extra money with the Celts struggling to fund their professional teams in the Pro12. They already, along with the RFU, have a relationship with Sky which, having lost the rights to the Aviva Premiership, is the Pro 12’s principal broadcaster. Sky and the RFU have been partners for most of the professional era so it would not take much of a jump for the company to secure some,if not all, of the Six Nations rights.

A key question the unions have to ask is whether extra money in 2018 would offset the potential loss of support for the length of the contract because the television audience would be measured in six rather than seven figures.

The Six Nations could ensure at least one match every round was available to free-to-air television. but if rights were shared who would have the first pick? Lets face it, this year’s opening round would have been a scrap for the first match.

Some would like the tournament to move simply because the satellite broadcasters do rugby better than the Beeb-hardly a surprise because they get more practice,week-in,week-out.On the other hand it could kill the goose that is the Six Nations championship,and send the profile of the sport into a tail-spin.No matter how much money might be plonked on the table by any pretenders to the satellite throne, by the time the new deal comes into being it will not compensate for the reduction in exposure.

Mike miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk