Another pool of death beckons

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.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERABut 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

www.scrumdown.org.uk

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. Patrick’s 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 Patrick’s 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

www.scrumdown.org.uk

Abolish the 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

www.scrumdown.org.uk

London Welsh must now focus on organic growth

The points against column for the season for London Welsh have soared past the 1,000 mark – and the previous record, held by West Hartlepool. The Exiles finished the season with 1,021 points conceded over 22 matches, surpassing the 1,007 shipped by the north-east side in the 1998/99 season. Small consolation, but in those days there were 14 teams in the Premiership, so that the tally was racked over four more matches.

It closes the coffin on Welsh’s second stint in the Premiership. And so bad has it been that the Premiership suits could moot an end to promotion and relegation while pointing at the hapless Welsh as a reason why.

Off the field, where the real problems have always lain, London Welsh were never ready for Premiership rugby, this time or last. The Kassam Stadium, in theory a perfectly pleasant ground, has echoed to the sound of a few thousand fans. So if there’s one thing we have learned from the London Welsh experience, it is that those much maligned minimum standards criteria were not quite such a ridiculous concept after all.

Clubs such as Exeter and Worcester have spent years putting together credible packages for the Premiership; Welsh’s application to the inspectorate three years ago was last minute and on the hoof.

The good news, though, is that there may yet be life at the Kassam. Wasps have now left the area and if London Welsh can attract any floating fans in the Thames Valley they could grow into an attractive proposition. It will take a few years. And those years should be spent in the Championship.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

Don’t hit a man when he is down

Another season ends; another promotion-relegation debate drags on

England’s leading clubs have pounced on London Welsh’s failure to compete in the Premiership and used it as a key weapon in their regular quest to ring-fence English rugby’s top flight. Twenty-two straight league defeats does not make pretty reading for the Exiles or the league as a whole but they have been handicapped since before even the start of the season.

Denied the same amount of central funding as their Premiership rivals, the timing of the Championship season means that their place among the elite is not confirmed until what seems like mid-summer and so their recruitment plans are hampered badly to say the least.

The fear of relegation can inspire thrilling and crowd-pleasing rugby at the wrong end of the table to rival that being played in the battle for silverware with teams fighting lives and players for their livelihoods. London Welsh may have failed spectacularly this season, but the likes of Exeter have thrived. Long-term financial planning may be hindered by uncertainty but drama puts bums on seats.

By all means engineer an expansion to the Premiership that will see sides clearly capable of competing – Bristol and Worcester – given an invite to the party but do not bolt the door.

Promotion and relegation must remain with a play-off between the Championship winners and the Premiership basement side perhaps the most likely compromise.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

Please bring back the 57 old farts

2015 being a year of anniversaries, someone mentioned the other day that it is 20 years since Will Carling’s pithy verdict on the RFU committee as “57 old farts” entered the sporting lexicon. The phrase nowadays would probably only qualify as a wry compliment by social media standards, but, can we honestly say, hand on heavily-sponsored heart, that the amateur era’s buffers, blimps and blazers were worse than the game’s current administrators who replaced them?

Because a quick count of the issues stacking up within the game do not reflect terribly well on the current guardians of the union code.

It is not merely the rising stench from beneath the carpets at Premiership Rugby, where the serious matter of alleged salary cap breaches have seemingly been swept. Perhaps we should simply resign ourselves to the air-brushing of anything which conceivably threatens the commercial bottom line, particularly the latest huge broadcasting deal with BT Sport. Is it not too much to ask those who know the truth to have the guts to step forward to share the details with us, the paying fans?

The same sense of disquiet applies to the proposed moratorium on promotion and relegation to and from the Premiership from 2016/17. This is not an argument which can be had in isolation. Either the RFU, its leading clubs and English rugby in general want a vibrant, healthy second tier beneath the Premiership or they do not. Simply pulling up the relegation drawbridge , imposing a low ceiling on the funding available to those outside the magic circle and insisting everything will be rosy for the disenfranchised majority is, at best, wishful thinking.

Where is the rugby equivalent of Bournemouth, just promoted to football’s billionaire playground, going to come from?

With the World Cup only months away, where is the breadth of vision at a time when rugby union has a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to spread its gospel. A recent letter to “Rugby World” put it succinctly: “Have you noticed the air of excitement in Britain about the World Cup? No, neither have I. With less than five months to go, the silence in anything but the rugby press is deafening.”The ousting of Debbie Jevans as the figurehead of England Rugby 2015 less than six months before the start of the tournament was accompanied by a deafening radio silence from Twickenham. The RFU used to be more open in the days when its phone number was ex-directory.

To finish off on Europe…Toulon have just won the inaugural European Champions Cup, the successor to the Heineken Cup. But the supposed new broom in Europe still has work to do on the perception front. Four of the five main sponsorship slots for this new completion remain unfilled. The only blue chip sponsor on board is……Heineken. And let’s not forget that a blizzard of free tickets was required to boost the attendance at European rugby’s flagship Twickenham final between two French sides…

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

Do Sky have an Irish love-in?

The European finals last weekend gave us a great opportunity to compare BT Sports’ coverage of rugby with that of Sky with both broadcasters covering the two finals. It’s a matter of personal preference of course , but I just find BT’s coverage more to my taste, and a bit less pompous.

Premiership fans have long been irritated by Sky’s Irish love-in, and that was evident again in their coverage of the Toulon v Leinster semi-final. There seemed to be no pretence of anything close to impartiality, and if we’d cut to Myles Harrison and Stuart Barnes in Leinster shirts I wouldn’t have been surprised! I have a lot of time for Stuart Barnes as a writer but as a broadcaster I wish he would take a leaf out of the late Ritchie Benaud playbook – less is more!

It’s hard to get numbers for Sky Sports subscribers in the UK and Ireland, but it seems likely that it’s roughly 20:1. However, having lost the rights to broadcast the premiership, it looks like there a distinctly pro-Irish flavour to their rugby output, and the rest of us will simply have to lump it – or press the mute button!

We have just had an all-French and all-British European final. Of course we need neutral referees when clubs from different countries are competing ,but when it’s a one-country clash ,might it not make for a better spectacle to have a home ref? Let’s face it, Pro 12,Top14 and Premiership matches are all ref’d in slightly differently ways, and the players are used to that.

I would have thought that a native French speaker would have been a better choice for the Champions final in particular. Nigel Owens is a superb referee, but how many of the players at Twickenham understood his English comments in a broad Welsh accent?

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

Saints win top of table clash

Northampton…….25  Saracens…………..20 – Stadium MK: DONS – Saturday 25th April 2015

Attendance 27,411

Stadium MK will get its first taste of international rugby at the World Cup later this year, when it is scheduled to host three matches, including the France v Canada game on October 1.Today’s “Best of British”, top-of-the-table clash between Northampton Saints and Saracens has long been switched to the 30,500 capacity stadium as part of tournament organiser England Rugby 2015’s operational testing programme.

Let’s hope they were watching closely. There was gridlock around the ground for more than three hours before the 3.15 kick-off; due it would seem mainly to road closures.

The last time I was here I picked a Saturday when the infamous “engineering works” meant a half-an-hour journey took almost five times as long.  Has anyone bothered to check that Network Rail does not intend to carry out work on the West Coast main line next October?

This wasn’t the only cock-up. Saracens had to do a quick change of shirts at half-time because of a clash with Northampton. Saints had informed Sarries that they would be wearing a St George’s Day kit of red and white, designed to support Help for Heroes. Saracens must have not got the message and the visitors turned up in their normal away strip of all-white. The referee allowed the game to go ahead while Saracens had their normal black shirts delivered by a police escort in time for the second half.

Both teams have used Stadium Mk as a home from home in the past. Saracens were the first club to host a rugby match at the ground when Bristol visited in 2008, providing a grand stage for Rugby World Cup 2003 winner Richard Hill’s 288th and last appearance for the men in black. A last-minute try from Kameli Ratuvou ensured Hill’s 15-year club career finished on a winning note.

Northampton then used Stadium MK as a base for their assault on the Heineken Cup knockout stages in 2011. The Saints defeated Ulster and Perpignan in front of big crowds in the quarter and semi-finals. The following season also saw Munster stop by for a pool match, with Simon Zebo marking one of the most thrilling chapters in the stadium’s short rugby history with a hat-trick as the Irish side won an entertaining contest 51-36.Saracens once again visited for their home Premiership fixture against the Saints on December 310, 2012, while their new stadium at Barnet was being built.

MK Dons moved to their brand new stadium (which cost about £50million to build) in 2007. From the outside it has a modern look, with good use of silver coloured cladding and a large amount of glass on view. The most striking feature is the stadium’s roof, which sits high up above the ground with a large gap between it and the back row of seating which allows more natural light to reach the pitch. The stadium is totally enclosed and has a bowl like design.

The overall look of the stadium has recently benefitted from the installation of seating into the previously unused upper tier. This will take the capacity to 30,700 for the World Cup. It is two-tiered, with three sides having a large lower tier over-hung by a smaller upper tier. The west side of the stadium is slightly different, with the seating areas in the upper tier being replaced by the Directors box and executive and corporate hospitality areas.Unusally the spacious concourse areas at the back of the lower tier see directly into the stadium, so where is what seems a noticeable gap between the lower and upper tiers is where the concourse is located.

Once you get into the stadium it is a delight. Chatting with other fans, the majority were greatly impressed, commenting on the comfort and legroom in the seating, with excellent views of the action and a great atmosphere. The toilet facilities have been especially praised by many fans, male and female, offering wide entrances, soap and hot running water. Such luxuries at a football ground! The stadium even has such creature comforts as padded seats and the ability to watch the game in progress whilst munching a burger on the concourse.

There was an excellent fan area with around 15 branches of famous restaurants. Provided you set off in the next week or two to make sure you arrive on time, then the Milton Keynes World Cup experience should be fabulous….

But enough quibbling…let’s not forget there was a game of rugby. This biting and blasting contest marked the end of Northampton’s late-season dip. After their heavy defeats at Clermont and Exeter they had the game to hold off an heroic attempt by Saracens to dethrone them from the top of the table. Saracens, themselves coming off a draining match in France against Clermont, had to absorb the massive blow of losing Billy Vunipola in the first half to injury, being pulverised by the referee and losing a significant lead. But their commitment was beyond praise.

However, the Saints eventually overcame the sinners of Saracens, whose discipline collapsed along with their scrum after the break, when they were penalised 13 times and finished a match they led for the most part fortunate to have a bonus point. When Stephen Myler gave his side the lead for the first time 63 minutes in it was via his fifth penalty, and the Saints had found a way to win.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

Is the Challenge Cup worth the hassle?

A distinct hint of déjà vu swirled around last weekend’s European semi-finals. A decade ago three of the four last eight ties in the then Heineken Cup were hosted by French clubs. Of those French sides, all reached the semi-finals and two of them – Toulouse and Stade Francais – contested the final.

Now dig a little deeper into the Euro pyramid. Ten years ago there were five Top 14 sides in the European Challenge Cup last eight; this year there were none. As far as the French are concerned, European club rugby’s second-tier competition is no longer worth the hassle.

They are not alone. What should be the UEFA Cup or Europa League of rugby feels more akin to the League Cup. For all sorts of reasons the Challenge Cup is presently in danger of losing its raison d’être. The winner is not even guaranteed to qualify for the Champions Cup next season (something football’s equivalent will offer this season’s winners), having to make do instead with a play-off spot.

The principle of three second-placed pool sides dropping down from the elite competition for the knockout phase has also been quietly dropped since the main tournament was reduced from 24 teams to 20.

Next season will be a different story – but only because it is a World Cup year. The Challenge Cup winners will qualify for the following season’s Champions Cup but in 2017/18 there will be a permanent switch back to the play-off system.

If say Gloucester win this year’s Challenge Cup to outflank the seventh-placed Premiership finisher, they will only play in the elite event should they beat the seventh-placed Pro 12 side , followed by the seventh-placed Top 14 side on May 30.

By then everyone involved will be on their knees…..

It all threatens to spawn a competition that is a waste of everyone’s time and effort. The whole driving force behind the new European set-up was to reward merit. Surely it says more about a team’s qualities if they battle their way through a series of sudden-death matches to win a worthwhile trophy, rather than simply rewarding them for mid-table mediocrity.

If there has to be a play-off for 20th place, perhaps it should be between the seventh-placed Pro12 team and the top-ranked Italian club, if the latter has finished outside the top six. That would retain the principle of Italian involvement in the Champions Cup – but only absolutely guarantee a place if they earn it on the field.

Automatic Champions Cup qualification would similarly reinvigorate the meandering Challenge Cup and make it worth cherishing again. A seriously competitive Challenge Cup – incorporating a worthwhile prize for the Champions – should not be beyond the wit of European rugby’s administrators.

These should be boom times for European club rugby – and that is before any “knock-on” effects from the World Cup. There were 84,068 at Wembley a few weeks ago, and, despite London Welsh’s struggles, there is reportedly a 5% rise in Premiership attendances this season. This all suggests spectator interest in the sport is growing – yet directors of mid-table squads across Europe are all being forced to prioritise the domestic front.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdowm.org.uk

Same old (Heineken) story, and Pragmatism>Beauty

For the third season in a row, Toulon, Clermont and Saracens are into the semi-finals if the European Cup. Leinster join them this year where Munster had joined them the two years previously, a total of five teams over three years.

During the three years previous to that, however, Ulster, Edinburgh, Clermont, Leinster, Saints, Perpignan, Toulouse, Biarritz and Munster had all appeared in the final four of the now defunct Heineken Cup.

So while the competition may have been streamlined and given a new name this season, it seems little has changed in terms of where the power lies on the pitch.

And looking back at the quarter-finals, one thing we learnt above all else – from three of the four results at least-is that when it comes to knockout rugby, it pays better to be powerful and clinical than daring and inaccurate. Leinster, Saracens and Toulon all came out on the right side of the result despite playing much less attacking rugby than their opponents. They won their games through the power and precision of their packs, and the boots of messrs Madigan, Bosch and Michalak respectively.

And this provides the answer to the main question that emerged from the helter-skelter final day of the Six Nations-namely, “why don’t teams play like this more often?”In the cold, hard world of knockout rugby, when winning is all that matters, it is more often than not the side that has the greater power-and therefore doesn’t need to chance its arm by flinging the ball around and making more errors-that will come out on top.

If teams don’t need to throw caution to the wind because they know they can win by battering the opposition and kicking the resulting penalties, they will do so.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk