Five of rugby’s talking points from July
The bold new era of the Pro14, Italian teeth troubles, rule changes and the introduction of the player sabbatical are all covered
Pro 12 shows its cojones
July saw the Pro 12 become the Pro 14 and with it, change the global rugby landscape. Never have southern hemisphere club teams competed with the north over a season. It is a wonderfully bold move and one which the league desperately needed to make. The inclusion of the Cheetahs (Bloemfontein) and the South Kings (Port Elizabeth) will have a dramatic impact on the league and the benefits aren’t purely financial. Each former Pro 12 team may be 500k richer as a result, but the enrichment of the league extends further. Firstly, the debate over summer/ winter rugby no longer needs to be had.
The Pro 14 will have both in a season. One week you’re playing Connacht with a litre of Deepheat sloshed up your legs, the next you’re applying factor 20 in Port Elizabeth. The coaching and selection changes required to cope with the differences in climate and altitude will be fascinating. But perhaps most importantly, long-term, is that this bold first move opens the door to the big boys of South African rugby. With little time delay for broadcasters, no jet lag and the promise of far more practical travel schedules, the Sharks, Stormers, Lions and Bulls may fancy a piece of this too. Super Rugby is in a state of flux and if rumours are to be believed the ménage à trois between the big three has become rather frigid. Whether it works remains to be seen. But the idea and ambition is laudable.
The quick conversion is coming
Rugby is the ultimate Darwinian sport. Whereas some sports, such as football, tend to evolve over a decade, rugby’s nuances change in rapid 12 month cycles. Be it scrum feeds, or law changes at the breakdown, a game of rugby in September can look very different from a game in the following May. The latest evolution may be the quick conversion. July saw yet another try awarded by the referee only for it the TMO to intervene 40 seconds later as the conversion was being prepared.
Following a perfectly weighted chip through from the Leinster bound James Lowe, the Chiefs’ Tim Nanai-Williams slid over the line and the try was awarded by Glen Jackson. Skip forward 35 seconds, as the Crusaders line-up the extra two, and the TMO intervenes disallowing the try. This isn’t the first time this has happened this season and could well lead to a faster conversion process for the scoring team – once the kick has been taken the TMO cannot overturn the decision. Worth keeping an eye on.
Zebre proves rugby is still amateur
Rugby is a professional sport on the field, but off it the game remains amateur on occasions. Late July, just weeks before the start of the season, saw Zebre taken over by the Italian Rugby Federation amid rumours that their players hadn’t been paid for three months. The situation is alarming, but weirdly understandable. It’s easy to forget that rugby has only been professional for 21 years.
In terms of pro sport rugby is a toddler and every now and again they do something in the bed that requires cleaning up by someone else. Whereas well developed professional sports like football and American Football went through their administrative shakeups and streamlining in the 70s and 80s, rugby is doing it now. It may also be that Italy can only sustain one quality professional team; which isn’t a negative, it has certainly worked for the Jaguares of Argentina, a nation with a far greater rugby pedigree than Italy. We shall see.
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Highlanders suffer from ‘roof syndrome’
You either love rugby being played under a roof or you don’t. I love it. It improves every single aspect of the game and if I had my way would erect a giant retractable roof over every single rugby playing nation – not just the stadium the entire country and its landmass. It is no more mental than Donald Trump’s wall. However, playing at a home stadium that has a roof can be a negative when you then play an away game in the wet. The Highlanders loss against the Crusaders in July being a classic example.
The Highlanders were beaten 17 nil by the wet weather masters – only Michael Schumacher in his prime ran better in the wet than the Crusaders. Whereas the ‘Landers struggled to control the ball in the wet, the ‘Saders contact work was immaculate to the point that surely some of that squad began life as frog spawn. It may be an over simplification to suggest that a team who plays every home game under a roof will struggle in wet weather, but it certainly looked that way.
Twelve month sabbaticals a sensible step forward
July saw Ben Smith confirm that he will be taking a sabbatical next season. It’s a sensible move from both the player and the NZRU. A move that would be wisely adopted by other unions particularly for those players who play upwards of ten test matches a season on top of their club commitments. The benefits of 12-month sabbaticals are undeniable. Even if the player decides to use the time to play overseas, the reduction of test responsibilities has a significant impact – playing ten test matches is the equivalent of playing at least 15 club matches. But by far the biggest benefit is player welfare and career longevity.
The levels of injury and concussion in elite modern rugby are genuinely frightening. To see the effects of concussion and repeated ‘car crash’ impacts you need only look at George North. A player who personifies the ridiculous workload of a modern rugby player. Despite still casting a massive physical shadow, he is metaphorically a shadow of his former self. North more than anyone would be wise to follow Ben Smith and down tools for a while. Do it George.