Sour Grapes from The Irish Times?

A Guinness Pro12 flag 16/5/2015
BT Murrayfield- The venue for this year’s Pro12 showdown

As I sit here eagerly awaiting my flights from Barcelona to Edinburgh tomorrow for the Guinness Pro12 final, I thought I’d call out, what I can only describe as sour grapes. I am of course, referring to Gerry Thornley’s article in ‘The Irish Times’ calling for the Pro12 final to get the venue it deserves. Because obviously the largest stadium and Scotland is dreadful compared to the 18,000 seater Ulster club ground in Belfast last year where Glasgow Warriors lifted Scotland’s maiden Pro12 trophy.

 “It would have generated an altogether bigger crowd and sense of occasion than next weekend’s final in Murrayfield” is what Thornley had to say about hosting the final in Ireland. It has already been confirmed that this year will be bigger than any final ever hosted in the leagues history, as the final leaves Irish shores for the first time Now, of course Ireland have never hosted the final in such a large stadium, so couldn’t reach such numbers, but why didn’t the make that a reality when we’ve had all Irish finals in the past? If it was possible to be so large, surely the Irish wouldn’t want to restrict the crowd to around the 20,000 mark by playing at club stadiums such as the RDS and would chose larger venues where possible?

In addition, with Glasgow Warriors topping the league last year, why weren’t there complaints of having to travel to Belfast? Despite selling the general sale out in April, on the day the stadium wasn’t even full, despite Munster, one of the best supported regions making the final. As a Glasgow Warriors fan, as much as Ravenhill is an excellent venue, it’s not really final material for me. (Attendance was 17,057, Capacity over 18,000)

kingspan-stadium-600
Ulster Rugby’s ‘Kingspan Stadium’ hosted the 2015 Guinness Pro12 Final

Then there’s the issue of price. Now I agree that some of the prices on accommodation have hit ridiculous levels for Edinburgh this weekend. Pro12 rugby did try and combat this by setting up deals with Clyde Travel to ensure there were places to stay for rugby fans. Unfortunately, the prices were a little bit too high for the budgets of some rugby fans, including myself. However, there are still, even today (27th May) coaches going from Ireland to Edinburgh and back over night for one-hundred and nine euros; the only other costs being food, drink and tickets, the standard.

Personally, I booked a month ago- flights from Barcelona were one-hundred and sixty euros and a bed for two nights set me back the hefty sum of thirty-two pounds. Absolutely shocking. Now I must admit, I am disappointed not to be watching Glasgow Warriors retain the title at the weekend, but with the prospect of Connacht being champions or seeing a master-class from some of Leinster’s seasoned players? Top that off with a parade from the Scotland 7s team who won the London leg of the 7s, The Aviva Premiership Final on the big screens and a record Pro12 final attendance in a fantastic stadium, I’m struggling to see how this isn’t a deserving venue and how it lacks a ‘”sense of occasion”.

Indeed, having booked a month ago the excitement has been gradually building day by day, and has now turned into minor panic as French air traffic control strikes threaten my flight being late or cancelled. Just to add a bit more excitement/adrenaline/potential disappointment.

Thinking back, perhaps the critics would’ve been happier last year if the Final was held in Scotstoun- after all, it can expand to 15,000 seats, would have been played at the home of the league toppers and would have been far superior to a final in a national stadium.

Of course having two Irish teams playing out a final in Scotland won’t draw such a big crowd as it might have in Ireland, but with criticism of the Pro12 constant, I personally feel like moving the final to a set destination works out best. If fans want to go, they have time to plan and make the final cheap, they have the opportunity to see a final in a world-class stadium. In the past with the offices, sponsors and final all coming from Ireland, the other nations have felt like an after thought and that is why on a grander scale, the final being outside of Ireland is a positive thing. It’s engaging fans outside of Ireland.

That’s about as much as I can say, I know that it’s not ideal with the Marathon on the same weekend, but in all honesty this is set to be one of the best finals yet, with a bumper crowd and some brilliant players battling it out in an international stadium. For those willing to look, there are options available now and there certainly were just a few weeks ago. See you all for the big event at BT Murrayfield tomorrow.

You can see more about why this year’s final is set to be so much bigger than ever before, here.

P.S Connacht abu.

The Scribbler, May 27th, 2016

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler

PRO Rugby in America- An Insight

usa-rugby-pro-rugbyIn its inaugural season, PRO Rugby America has shown promising signs. A refreshing attitude to keeping the game fast and exciting, female referees, inventive ideas to help new fans (red line on jerseys shows what is considered a high tackle or not, for example) and crowds of a couple of thousand- more than many expected.

To top it all off, the league is going to expand in size next year and wants the fans to help with the names of the teams to try and create a real fan affinity and heart to each side.

In this brilliant insight, Canadian International and PRO Rugby San Diego Captain, Phil Mackenzie, gives us his inside view on PRO Rugby USA in its opening season.

The article is available, here.

Applications to name your team are now open, and there is further information on the league’s website; prorugby.org

Don’t forget to check out my page full of interesting reblogs!

The Scribbler, 21st May, 2016

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler

 

Playoff memories: Munster 16th May 2014

A look back to a brilliant Pro12 semi-final a few years back from our friend over at TopofthemoonGW!

What do you remember of the final? Let me know in comments, or on Twitter!

Don’t forget to check out my page full of interesting reblogs!

The Scribbler, May 17th 2016

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler

On Top Of The Moon

On this day two years ago Glasgow hosted their very first home playoff match at a packed Scotstoun stadium. The Warriors had won 18 games in the Pro 12 regular season, including eight in a row leading up to the semi-final. A lack of bonus points though meant a second place finish behind leaders Leinster and a visit from another Irish powerhouse – Munster.

It was a match played at an intensity not witnessed before at Scotstoun, but with three previous playoff appearances behind them the Warriors were ready. Despite falling behind to an early Munster try by halftime the home side had carved out a narrow lead. Their hard work was to provide even greater rewards as Gordon Reid shoulder shuffled over for a try just six minutes into the second half. From there on it was tension all the way for those in attendance. Munster closed to within 4 points…

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How can Rugby support its retiring stars?

rpa
The Rugby Players Association Logo

 

Last week I wrote an article following Mark Palmer’s article in ‘The Sunday Times’ about ex-Scotland international Rory Lamont’s struggles with mental health issues, following his retirement from the game in 2013. Now looking forward, what can rugby do to try and support its retiring stars?

The first and most obvious way is keeping players within the game. After retirement, many players will have a wealth of knowledge and experience they can share- that often comes through one of two routes- coaching or becoming a pundit. There are many examples of this, for example Brian O’Driscoll and Will Greenwood, to name just two, have made names for themselves as television pundits and ex-players such as Ronan O’Gara, Martin Johnson and as of next season, Mike Blair, have moved into coaching roles.

The one route which is often neglected is refereeing, which seems bizarre. Players with years of front-line experience will know a lot about what goes on on the field, the tricks people play, and will generally already have the fitness and a good level of knowledge of the laws, making a transition into refereeing perhaps easier than for others. One issue that may put people off is the pressure- indeed we all saw how following a questionable decision in the World Cup Quarter Finals, World Rugby threw Craig Joubert under a bus, saying that he made the wrong decision. However, if you are able to acknowledge your mistakes like Nigel Owens for example, then refereeing can be a good route. Indeed New Zealander Glen Jackson has been successful in switching his playing boots for the whistle and Harlequin’s scrum-half Karl Dickson has been fast tracked through the amateur levels of refereeing in preparation for the next stage of his rugby career. It is, of course, different for those retiring through an injury where this will not be possible.

However, understandably, not everyone wants to stay in Rugby, it can be nice to have a change. For example, Alan Jacobsen (The Chunk) following his retirement has set up a plumbing business, whilst Chris Cusiter is planning a move to the USA to open his own Whisky business. Especially as an outsider, it’s easy to ask why more players don’t have a plan b; something to do in their retirement, or a plan should they suffer a serious injury.

Following his article in ‘The Sunday Times’ I got in touch with Mark Palmer and asked his opinions on the topic. A very interesting point he made is how “it is often very much in the interests of unions, clubs and their coaches to have their players operate with a week-to-week outlook, always focussed on the next match, the next challenge, the next job”. This is absolutely understandable as teams have goals to achieve and coaches have ways to do that- but in an environment where the next week is everything, it is very easy to see how the long-term can easily be swept-aside. This is potentially something that can be combated by coaches- still giving that week by week focus, but also making players aware and have them think about their futures after rugby.

Naturally, due to the nature of professional sport, players have top travel a lot, which often leads to isolation from outside groups, making their team-mates their primary social group. Once you leave that circle, it’s a lot harder to spend time with that circle and those no longer in the team can struggle to stay in that social group. Mr Palmer also highlighted that some studies suggest that on a subconscious level, players in social groups within professional sport often don’t like to mix too much with those who are no longer in the professional circle as it highlights the fragility of their position as a sportsman.

The next thing I want to discuss, may appear out of context, but stick with it. I want to talk about Sam Underhill. The 19 year old Ospreys flanker has had a huge breakthrough year. When he arrived at Cardiff University to start his economics degree, he was playing for the semi-professional side The Ravens, but Steve Tandy soon snapped him up and had him playing for the Welsh Region. Having made a huge impression on the field many have called for him to move his studies back to England so that he can play internationally. They say that he shouldn’t be allowed to play whilst in Wales as it sets a precedent for other players to exploit the ‘loophole’.

First of all, if this isn’t an “exceptional circumstance” that would allow him to play for England, I don’t know what is. Secondly, as we have seen, life after Rugby can be unforgiving- by having a degree in economics he will potentially be better set for life after Rugby. Now of course, there’s no obvious reason why he can’t transfer to England, but why should he? Before he became a professional rugby player he chose Cardiff University. He could have studied in England, but for him the best place to go was Wales. If he had chosen to study in Wales after being offered an Osprey’s contract, I can see why people may object, but in this case I strongly feel that it is in Underhill’s best interest to stay studying at Cardiff if that’s what he wants and if England really want him, they should exercise the circumstances rule.

The last glaring issue identified by both Lamont and Palmer is the fact there is no support network for professionals in Scotland. In England the Rugby Players association (RPA) has existed since 1998, since ’95 in Australia, ’01 in Ireland and ’05 in Wales. Where is such an organisation in Scotland? It seems Scottish clubs have a large task on their hands to help all of their players after they retire and unfortunately, some have slipped through the net already.

One thing is clear then- more action needs to be taken, both in Rugby, professional sports and in general.

To see my initial piece in response to Rory Lamont’s revelations about his experiences of professional rugby and mental health, click here. Included are links to the original post on The Sunday Times.

The Scribbler, 16th May, 2016

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler

What a Brexit would mean for rugby

‘The Blitz Defence’ explains how foreign players currently get permission to work in the UK and how a Brexit might change that.

This is a two part series, so there’s more to come. Although there are certainly bigger issues, I wonder how it would affect players/crowds in the Pro12 and in the Six Nations. You would like to think that slightly longer airport times wouldn’t put many fans off.

Don’t forget to check out my page full of interesting reblogs!

As usual, let me know your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter!

The Scribbler, 12th May, 2016

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler

theblitzdefence

As Europe’s premier club rugby competitions come to an end this weekend a new debate is gathering pace across the UK – should the country stay in the EU or vote to leave?

The good news about having a referendum on the UK’s future is that the people get to have a say in the direction the country will take over the coming years. The negative aspect is we get to sit through 6 weeks of seeing Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and assorted other politicians and commentators on our TV screens every night…….

This is though, a monumental vote for the country so we thought it would be worth looking at the implications for rugby if the Brexit (“British” withdrawal from the EU) wins the vote.

In this first of a 2 part series we look at the way a Brexit vote will impact movements of players between…

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We need to talk about: No rest for the wicked

Many of us have been concerned about the number of players lacking rest in the Scotland team for the summer and this puts it into perspective with ‘Top of the moon’s ever brilliant statistics.

As it seems, the players many are concerned about are still within the recommended amount of game time within a season, which justifies their selection. However, with young talents to try out, The Lions tour coming up next year, many still want to see the stars rested. Conversely, with the World Cup pools being selected in May 2017, Vern Cotter will be looking at getting Scotland into the best possible position and therefore every game counts. There is also an argument that after so much progress over Vern’s tenure, he won’t want to kill momentum as the team begins to seriously threaten in the Six Nations once again.

Don’t forget to check out my page full of interesting reblogs!

The Scribbler, 11th May, 2016

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler

Source: We need to talk about: No rest for the wicked

Why is the Guinness Pro12 Final set to be so big this year?

Pro12 trophy
BT Murrayfield will host the Pro12 final, May 28th. Tickets on sale now.

So it has been confirmed that this year’s Guinness Pro12 final is to be the biggest yet, as it passed the 26,100 mark, set by Munster at Thomond Park when they defeated Leinster 19-9 in the 2011 Pro12 Final. We now have the confirmed quarter finals, table toppers Leinster take on the fourth place and in-form Ulster at the RDS, looking for vengeance of their 30-6 loss to the Ulstermen in Round twenty one. Out in the west Connacht are set for their first ever home semi-final, against reigning Champions, Glasgow Warriors. Connacht played well to end the Warriors nine match winning streak to secure a home semi-final, but will face a new challenge as an experienced Glasgow side will be hoping to over turn the result. Last time around the Warriors were down to fourteen men when Sila Puafisi was awarded a red card on the forty-ninth minute. However, no away team has ever won a semi-final away from home, making this a really interesting battle.

 With history to be made in a number of different ways, why has interest been so big in this years final? There are a few reasons and it’s great to see interest and support in the league growing.

The first big advantage is having a destination final and doing it in a stadium deserving of the show piece event. I’m not going to say that Ulster’s Kingspan stadium last year wasn’t a great location; Belfast is a brilliant city for travelling fans to visit and the Ulster crowd certainly know how to put on a show. With their stadium redeveloped, it really is a top class facility. However, travelling to a final in an 18,000 seat stadium just doesn’t quite appeal so much. It gives an impression of mediocrity and that, in essence, the final isn’t really that big of a deal.

The difference with Edinburgh? The first thing is that it is the first Pro12 final to be held outside of Ireland, which perhaps attracts more fans from Wales, of course Scotland and English fans who support Pro12 sides, too. With tickets starting at a very reasonable £20, it is an attractive day out for any rugby fan, in the same way the £10 tickets were for Judgement Day IV.

As mentioned above, having a 66,000 stadium also makes it feel a bit more legitimate, a bit more real. It gives an expectation, it shows that this is a final, this is important and for that reason, it shall be played on the big stage. Will the final be a sell-out? I don’t know exactly how sales are going, but I would expect not. Murrayfield is a big old place and with over 26,000 tickets sold, there’s still a way to go if Pro12 are to fill it. That said, never say never. With this being such an exciting climax for the Pro12, who knows?

The following reason for increased interest has to be the ferocity of the closing stages of this years competition. Coming into the final round Connacht and Glasgow Warriors had secured play off spots, Leinster needed a solitary point to make the semi’s and Ulster and Scarlets were both still in the running too. As we have seen for so many years in Europe, the Irish travel well. Counter in the fact that Connacht have been doing well, there will have been extra interest from the west and of course, those supporting the under dog. Top that off with the potential for Glasgow Warriors to lift a second consecutive Pro12 trophy and do so in the home of Scottish Rugby and it’s not hard to imagine why there has been heightened interest this time around.

The final two things to mention are the sponsor and the logistics of a destination final. As mentioned in my recent article about Judgement Day IV, Guinness is a big name and with their colours being black and gold as opposed to the orange and blue of RaboDirect, the final is just branded that bit better. Being the second year into a TV deal with Sky Sports will also no doubt have widened interest in the league.

As a destination final, it also makes it easier for people to arrange going. Of course, if for example the final was two Irish sides and it’s held in Scotland, this isn’t the best for the fans of those teams. However, inevitably one side always has to travel. Providing cheap tickets for months in advance means that those who got their ducks in a row will have bought their tickets, flights and accommodation months ago, at a better price. Under the old system, there was a very short turn around between the announcing the location of the final and the final itself, making it much more difficult and expensive to travel to the event. As a fan having to travel back from Barcelona and having a friend travel up from Bristol, this has made the world of difference for us.

So now we go onto the semi-finals in the next few weeks, with the European Champions Cup final in Lyon to keep us entertained in the mean time. You can check out the highlights of last year’s Pro12 final in Belfast last year, here.

If you’re yet to buy your tickets, I would recommend buying soon; BT Murrayfield has just opened some new blocks as the lower tiers begin to fill up. Tickets available, here.

As usual, let me know your thought in the comments or on Twitter, and if you fancy a pint at the game, let me know! (Donations are welcomed and encouraged, I don’t get paid for writing this pure gold..)

The Scribbler, 8th May, 2016

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler