Saturday, 31 October 2015

Premiership Rugby's Salary Cap Secrecy Shames the Game

Unless you have been living in a cave, in a particularly nasty coma or live in Simon Cohen's household you’ll have heard this week about Premiership Rugby coming to a “settlement” with “some” clubs.  Many reports carry the figure of 2 clubs but, as with everything else, nothing is confirmed by Premiership Rugby and several clubs have issued denials with varying degrees of credibility.

McCafferty has been his usual elusive self in this situation, as slippery as an eel in jelly, he says “I am concerned at the nature of the speculation” and that people came “to an incorrect conclusion”.

What does he expect?  Does he seriously expect fans to say “Oh well it’s all jolly confusing and I couldn’t possibly understand such things.  Best leave it to the gargantuan intellects like McCafferty to sort out; he knows best.”

Fans by nature are speculative beasts.  What team is the coach going to pick? Are we going to win? Who are we going to sign? To expect them to simply swallow whatever you throw at them under the cover of “confidentiality” is rubbish.

Premiership Rugby is addicted to confidentiality.  For years they wouldn’t publish the salary cap regulations and it took a planning dispute over Saracens' new ground in Barnet for the “Minimum Standards Criteria” to see the light of day; despite them being used to deny Rotherham promotion and to try and deny London Welsh promotion.  They have now disappeared again into the long grass.

How much cash does each club get from Premiership Rugby in central funds?  No one knows as they won’t say.  How many “England Qualified Players” does each team officially select? No one knows despite clubs being financially rewarded for it.  At least with EQPs fans have a pretty good chance to be able to work it out.  How many season ticket holders does each club have? They never say.

It doesn’t have to be this way.   

Many people think French rugby is a wild west style Badlands where anything goes.  But every year the Ligue Nationale de Rugby publishes a report that openly details every one of those things.  Premier League football openly discloses how much it distributes to various clubs and why.

There is absolutely no need for this level of secrecy.  It only breeds suspicion because, frankly, if their financial distribution model IS fair why are they shy of sharing it?  If the Minimum Standards Criteria ARE sensible minimums why not publish them?  If teams AREN'T cheating the cap what do they have hide?   

The current issue appears to be over whether a player’s personal sponsorship deals are included in the cap or not.  McCafferty says “We are not talking about loopholes but access to information and whether certain commercial contracts should be included in the calculation or not, which is where the differing legal opinion came in.” 

There is no right answer here.  When Tigers were sponsored by Canterbury Thomas Waldrom had a personal deal with them at the same time.  He wore their boots, scrum cap and advertised their general clothes.  He was also used, I understand at Canterbury’s request, to model Tigers kits at that time.

Should Waldrom’s deal with Canterbury be included in Tigers salary cap for that season? It’s not clear cut at all.  If there are no restrictions then we have an open door for clubs to funnel money outside the cap (and also through a player’s personal services company to avoid tax), if we include all such deals then you could be forced over the cap by one of your star players switching boot providers.

Fans are not idiots.  We can all see that once you regulate salaries Pandora’s box opens and what is or is not included will always be subjective.  Premiership Rugby can say that and whilst we’d have a debate over where the lines are drawn their wouldn’t be this rotting smell emanating from Premiership Rugby.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Beware of Greeks bearing Gifts

Always beware of Greeks bearing gifts.  After England’s humiliating group stage exit there have been a lot of siren voices in the media, usually with a southern hemisphere or Celtic accent, laying the blame on the clubs; too many foreigners they say, you need central contracts they reckon.

Cardiff Blues chairman Peter Thomas has called for regional rugby and Agustin Pichot insists central contracts are the answer.  Jeff Probyn called again for regions in this weekend’s The Rugby Paper.  All very certain it seems.

When Italy joined the Celtic League to form the Pro 12 we heard similar things.  Then FIR president Giancarlo Dondi said "I am sure that the Magners League will bring benefits to all Italian rugby and will have a positive impact on the competitiveness of our national team”, the late Stuart Gallacher said “the Italians will be a force to be reckoned with in our league and it will make the league much more competitive”.  Nick Mallet, a former favourite for the England role and then Italian coach said “The top ten in Italy is just not at the required level to produce players for international rugby” and the move “helps the Six Nations”.  The BBC went as far as to call it “the biggest boost for Italian rugby since the national team's entry into the Six Nations in 2000.”

So after all those great rugby minds declared that the move would be a huge success and that it would revolutionise Italian rugby has it work? Have results improved at either a club or national level?

6N record excluding 2000&2001
In a word no.  As this revolution was all down to improving the national side let’s look there first.  Italy’s record in the 6 Nations shows no discernible improvement.  They entered the tournament in 2000 and since then the average score in their games has been a 14-32 defeat, in the old era of the Super 10 the average score was 15-33 and in the new era of the Pro 12 it is 13-29.  In the first two years of the 6 Nations Italy’s attack was the best it has ever been and their defence the worst, remove those two years, see graphic right, and the average scores are practically identical.

At a club level the story is even worse.  Whilst the national team has improved, even if only slightly, the clubs have gotten worse.  Super 10 sides in the old Heineken Cup lost on average 16-39, since the move to the Pro 12 that has become 12-36.  As the graphic left shows when taken to 2 decimal places the difference is practically non-existent.

How can this be? Italy have taken all the prescribed remedies, they’ve got central contracts, they’ve condensed their league to 2 regional sides, killing off domestic rugby in the process and there are barely any foreigners left playing in Italy, only 13 this weekend.

The problem is that all these are fiddling around the side.  Italy have not improved their player pool.  Yes they have good young players, our own Riccardo Brugnara and Tiziano Pasquali among them, but Italy has always produced good players it needs to produce more really top end ones capable of dominating internationally.  Sacking foreigners and killing domestic rugby hasn’t helped that.  And it won’t help in England either.

We must resist these siren voices drawing us to the rocks.  Hansen, Thomas and Pichot do not really care about England and Jeff Probyn’s agenda of destroying independent clubs has been clear for some time.  England rugby will only improve as the player pool and, crucially, coaching of the senior side improves.

Monday, 12 October 2015

5 Things Tigers can learn from the Rugby World Cup

So the group stage is over and the Rugby World Cup now goes on for another three weeks of knock out rugby.  I've loved it and its been great.  Well not if you're a hooray Henry in red corduroy trousers and a tweed jacket.  Then you're probably still frothing at the mouth over England and banning Alesana Tuilagi for bending his knee when he runs.

But what can Tigers learn from the last month of rugby? What new ideas, or maybe old ones, can we take for this festival of rugby?

1. The Quick Heel

Look I know better people than me insist that it can't be done but the evidence is before our eyes.  The quick heel, channel one ball, is back.  The Japanese scrum has been a revelation, with Canada also excelling, in getting the ball in and away quickly.  This is an invaluable tool when your scrum is under the cosh or you just fancy your chances out wide.  Against Samoa the Japanese also showed that a quick heel can be combined with a dominant pack, choosing an 8 man shove near the Samoan line and earning a penalty try.

2. New Zealand do not have a monopoly on quality players

Admittedly hardly a revelation for a club that picked up Dave Lougheed from Canada in 1998.  Georgia's props are well known but their centres Sharikadze and Mchedlidze have impressed hugely with lion like defence and clever attacking brains.  Both are 22 and play in Pro D2, the division from which we signed Vereniki Goneva.  Namibia's Johan Deysel and Renaldo Bothma have caught the eye, whilst Romania's Florin Vlaicu's nerveless kick to win against Canada will have caught the eye of scouts.

3. Error free rugby is possible

In Japan's wins against South Africa and Samoa they only dropped the ball 11 times in total, won all 18 of their scrums and 24 out of 26  of their lineouts.  Last year Tigers did win 92% of their own lineouts so we know that can be done but Japan also conceded just 4 penalties in their win against Samoa.  You can play without conceding penalties.  You can play without errors.

4. Experience is crucial but no guarantee

England showed that nothing can prepare you for the white heat of the battle; South Africa and Tonga picked their oldest and most experienced sides ever but were beaten by vibrant sides offering something new.  Radically different to each other as Japan and Georgia are they shocked their opponents with tactics or an intensity their opponents just weren't expecting.  Tigers have experience of winning Premiership titles but little in Europe's later stages.  The only starting players remaining from our last European knock win are Marcos Ayerza and Tom Croft whilst Jordan Crane came off the bench.  That win was in 2009, or 7 seasons ago.  It is time the Youngs bros and Dan Cole tasted European success, do we have the experience necessary or the ability to surprise a team with out tactics or intensity?

5. Match day build up can be improved

One thing that has massively impressed me at the Rugby World Cup games I've been to is the match day presentation team.  Basically its having a TV presenter and pundit pitch-side as usual but they are presenting to the crowd in the stadium.  They show the history of the two nations involved, highlight players to watch and generally preview the game.  At half time they offer a bit of analysis and insight and after the final whistle they interview the captains and the man of the match.

Tigers now have the two big screens and could really use them better.  We have a never ending supply of injured players to provide the punditry, or we could turn to a recently retired legend, and there is always highlights and news to share with the crowd.  Tigers could show great moments from history on the screen, preview that day's opponents, show highlights from previous weeks, youth team & reserve games or other teams games that weekend.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Tigers win but Sale are Kings

Tigers concluded their pre-season with a bonus point win at home to Sale, but the away side still walked away with the crown “Kings of the North” as Tigers failed to beat their points difference.  Whilst Tigers would have preferred to claim the title the coaches will be satisfied with the performance.

Mike Williams and Peter Betham were particularly impressive as Betham, Croft, Bell and Odogwu crossed for tries.

Tigers were hunting a 35 point victory and started impressively.  Running with intent Betham slid between two tacklers and burst through to touch down in front of the Crumbie.  Burns was successful with the conversion and a penalty after Tigers had attacked from their own 22.

Sale were attacking themselves and went close in front of the Met RX stand twice.  On the second occasion Greg Bateman over threw his jumper and opposite number Tommy Taylor was on hand to collect the poor throw and pounce for the try.  Sale levelled after a penalty against Mulipola for being Samoan, when Courtney Lawes is penalised for tackles like these I believe it’s not bias against Islanders.

Anyway Tigers prioritised with win over chasing the points difference too aggressively and Burns nailed two more kicks.  The first though should not have been taken by him as he was off the field for a “Head Injury Assessment” when the penalty was awarded.

A second penalty was earned and the score 16-10 at half time.  Sale were on the attack early pushing for the victory but as a contest the game was over following Peter Betham’s goal-line intercept and break.  The Australian picked off Cipriani’s pass and raced away, unable to finish he smartly passed from the floor to find Adam Thompstone in deep support, Thompstone’s intelligent quick pass to Croft saw the flanker exhibit his pace and finish from the 22m.

Tigers now did chase the tries, bonus point and points difference kicking penalties to the corner but struggled to convert some excellent positions.  Eventually Tommy Bell was given a clear run in from Betham’s pass down the Crumbie touchline.

Sale were fortunate to see Harry Thacker binned when he thought he had pilfered a ball at the back of a ruck and ran clear.  Decisions like this from referee Craig Maxwell-Keys is why England do not produce world class 7s.  The ball was out, and if it was in it was marginal, but rather than settle for a penalty due to a difference in interpretation he must feed his ego by flashing the cards about.  A poor referee that I doubt we will see in the Premiership this season, he has learned nothing from his grilling after the Hughes affair.

The Sale try was hard earned as Tigers defended stoutly, Mark Jennings burgling himself over in a similar position to where Betham scored the Tigers first try.

With the title gone but the win secure Tigers relaxed slightly and played better.  Fonua carried prominently but his ball control requires work.  For the final try he was the decoy as it was spun wide with Odogwu the man on the end scoring.

Williams and Betham were the standout men with Fitzgerald also adding to his reputation.  Burns seems more settled, his first step was usually forward and there were two classic matador breaks from his own 22.  Odogwu and Fonua showed glimpses in their cameos while Tom Croft is looking back to his best.

With three bonus point wins in pre-season and the defence stiffening markedly since the reverse fixture Tigers will go to London Irish full of confidence for a decent start.