Wednesday 15 October 2014

I was saying Boo Urns

Never one to be left out of the loop, I must rush to join the chorus of Irish disapprovers in previewing the European rugby competition, that the English are already championing up to an extortionate amount. But, this isn't your typical preview, rather a couple of points that no one seems to be mentioning in their exulted praise of debt-ridden sport.

First, each English written preview starts off with phrases like "after all of the chaos and politics is better off". Is it unreasonable to ask how in the world you can possibly know that already? Unless my life has distracted me sufficiently to miss an entire season of this brand new competition, nothing has happened yet.

This claim is predicated on the fact that the groups are stronger than ever before. Nonsense. Let's take a look at Leinster's pools from the last few years.

2013/14: Leinster, Northampton, Castres, Ospreys
2012/13: Clermont, Leinster, Exeter, Scarlets
2011/12: Leinster, Glasgow, Bath, Montpeiller.

Further detail in that reveals in 2013/14, Leinster faced the Top 14 champions in Castres and one of the top 2 favourites (I'll come back to this) in Northampton? who went on to win the Premiership.
In 2012/13, Leinster were up against the best team from that era in Europe in Clermont, while the previous year, Glasgow were beginning their upward rise in the Pro 12, as were Montpeiller.

Compare that to this year, where Harlequins growth has stalled after some encouraging performances, Wasps are being uprooted and their main home resilence is being taken away from them, while Castres have started the Top 14 with 6 losses in their first 9, while conceding and average of 28.3 points per game, and only scoring 20.8.

But no, you're right the competition is much harder. It's not like before in those "easy" pools when Clermont and Leinster were together where both teams knew that relying on qualifying as a runner up was futile. Back in my day, European Rugby only allowed 2 of the 6 runners up to qualify for the quarter finals. That's 33% for those of us who prefer percentages. Let's compare that to this new fangled system of allowing 3 of these "elite" runners up into the quarters. Which for those who can do percentages looks a lot like 60%.

So this myth that it's harder to qualify for the quarters in this new fancy way of doing things actually seems to be easier. Because, I don't know about you, but as a team looking out for my own interests, I'd much rather have the cushion of knowing that second place gives me nearly double the change of qualifying.

This now means, according to other previews, that all games in all pools matter. What these goldfish forget is, none of that has changed. What made the Heineken Cup so magical was that every weekend counted. Any loss was a hammer blow to all sides, but now two or more losses could get a third second place team into the quarter finals. That's the price of being "elite".

I fail to see how pointing to the expansion of Super Rugby helps the argument that things are now better in Europe, especially when one preview mentioned that it took Western Force a whole 9 years to be competitive since they were introduced. Let's take a moment and reflect on this. Imagine how long it would have taken the Force to be competitive if they hadn't been playing against quality opposition week in and week out?

Take the European example of Treviso, who after 3 years in the Pro 12 started making progress by finishing a respectable 7th, before their squad was plundered by the English and French. How can any team continue to keep players like Botes, De Marchi, Cittadini, McLean, Williams, Vosawau, Loamanu, Ghiraldini, Barbieri, Rizzo, Di Bernardo, Berquist and Semenzato without the lure of top rugby?

At their height, they conceded 27.8 points per game and scored 17.8 points per game in Europe. Not too dissimilar from Castres record now is it? Should the English cast those lot out too?

Club rugby has been dealt a development blow in Europe, and it's time the English stopped pretending like things are fine and dandy.

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