Cardiff Blues vs Stade Toulousain

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Head to Head

No game between Cardiff and Toulouse can take place without evoking memories of that first European Cup final back in 1996. A bitterly cold day when most other fixtures were called off, the game was played at The National Stadium as it then was. Let’s not dwell too long on the result. Since then, Toulouse have enjoyed less than fruitful visits to the Welsh capital, having lost all three subsequent games. In October 2000, another barnstorming performance by Dan Baugh led the team to a 26-17 victory. Nine years later, it was Cardiff again running out victors in a European Cup Quarter Final. And then in the following season, Cardiff chalked up a victory at the soccer stadium in Leckwith. So all four previous games played between these two teams in Wales were actually played on four different pitches.

The Coaches

For a remarkable 22 years between 1993 and 2015 Guy Novès was the head coach at Toulouse. From there, he went on to coach the national team and his place was taken by Ugo Mola. Whilst Mola has build a formidable fortress in Toulouse, his team’s away form is less than impressive, having only won eight times in over two years. Away wins are a rarity in the geographically challenged Top 14, though interestingly enough, Toulouse have one of the better away records in the competition. Danny Wilson’s tenure at Cardiff is coming to a close and he probably has less than a dozen games left as coach. Whilst progress has been made under his tutelage, his team so far remain nearly men – close, but not close enough. His 47% win ratio is less than impressive and already this season his team has conceded 60 tries – in 7 out of the previous 14 season, more than for an entire season.

The Referee

29 year old Ian Tempest is one of the youngest referees in the Aviva Premiership. He’s refereed Cardiff three times, including a disappointingly weak performance in Montpellier two seasons ago. In 11 games this season, Tempest has brandished two reds and six yellow cards. Although he’s yet to take charge of 40 Aviva Premiership fixtures and so does not appear on our top 10 list, a 72.5% home win ratio would make him one of the biggest homers in the league.

Attack

Toulouse are a mid-table team in the Top14 this season. They are averaging 2.3 tries scored per game against Cardiff’s 2.72. The visitors offloading game is one of the best in the Top 14, averaging 13 per fixture. This is in start contrast to Cardiff’s figure of 8 per game. This trend is in-keeping with the differences between the two leagues.

Set Piece

At the scrum, both teams boast 90% plus success rates , though Toulouse’s 82% success in the lineout is less than impressive.  At the corresponding fixture in Toulouse, the home team lost a number of strikes against the head, registering a 65% success ratio.

Defence

A disastrous 2016-17 season saw Cardiff conceded almost 3.5 tries per game on average. Although the defence has improved a little this season, they are still conceding more than three a game. There’s been a steady deterioration in Toulouse’s defence in recent years, but they are only conceding 2.11 tries per game this season. Toulouse have a steady – if unspectacular – tackle record, as do Cardiff. Last season – no doubt still suffering from the transition from Novès to Mola, they suffered one of their worst defensive performances in recent years, conceding over 550 points in the Top 14.

Discipline

If supporters are sometimes frustrated by the way yellow cards distort games in the Pro14, we should sympathise with followers of the Top14. On average, one card per game is issued by officials in the Pro14 – a total of 91 so far this season. In the Top 14, 1.6 cards – on average – area awarded per game. Toulouse – like Cardiff – area serial offenders, so it’ll be surprising if Mr Tempest does not send someone from the pitch this weekend.

Prediction

Both these teams are mid-table dwellers – evenly matched across the pitch (as the closeness of the result in Toulouse indicated). The visitors will secure a bonus point, but will ultimately fall short and lose 17-10.

Ospreys vs Cardiff Blues

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Head to Head

Cardiff have a truely miserable record at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea. One Anglo-Welsh Cup victory aside, the visitors have only won once, way back in 2005. Victories alone don’t describe the home team’s dominance. They have outscored Cardiff by more than three to one in tries scored, and by almost two to one in points scored. Two of the last three games have resulted in victories of more than 20 points for the home team. Last season, the home team ran out 46-24 victors – Cardiff’s equal worst defensive effort of the season (matched only by games in Kingsholm and Paris). With some sense of familiarity, last season’s game once again featured second half territorial domination by Cardiff coupled with an inability to break down the home team’s defence.

The Coaches

Facing the double whammy of playing in Swansea and enduring another game refereed by Nigel Owens, Danny Wilson has a very tough challenge preparing his team mentally for this game. Despite dominating the Scarlets (again) in both territory and possession, a lack of invention and penetration meant victory proved once more elusive. Meanwhile, Steve Tandy is approaching his fifth anniversary as coach of the Ospreys. He’s enjoyed a miserable start to the season, though with three victories in the last four games (and an unlucky defeat in Llanelli), are there signs that his team is turning the corner?

The Referee

Nigel Owens has refereed this fixture on no fewer than seven out of the last twelve times it has been played. Does this seem like a healthy state of affairs? In the last eleven games that 46 year old Owens has refereed Cardiff, the capital city-based team has won only once. In the last five games, he’s issued 5 cards to Cardiff players and none to the opposition. That sinking feeling that Cardiff fans feel when they see that Owens is about to ruin another game seems never-ending. Has the panto-season started yet?

Attack

The Ospreys have the worst offloading game in the Pro14 this season – averaging only 6 per game. Only Treviso and the Kings have run fewer meters on average per game. By way of contrast, Cardiff players have made more breaks than those from any other team in the league, but as we know, that means nothing if they don’t result in scores. And scoring tries is something very alien to the Ospreys. This season, they’ve managed only 18 in the league – the lowest total of any team. It’s difficult to describe this game as anything other than a basement battle when it comes to attacking prowess.

Set Piece

The Ospreys’ scrum ranks as one of the poorest in the league with an 86% success rate – but the visitor’s is hardly better at 89%. Lineout data shows that no team has won more lineouts than the Ospreys – perhaps a product of the tactical approach of the opposition they have faced. But nevertheless the Swansea-based team show a 93% success rate in this facet of play.

Defence

In the Scarlets game last week, five tackles were missed by two of Cardiff’s key players – Morgan and Anscombe. By some margin, it was Anscombe’s worst game of the season, and coming as it did against one of his team’s major rivals, questions will be raised as to his ability to perform on the big occasion. He also only carried the ball for a miserly 7m. By way of contrast, despite Morgan‘s weakness in defence, in attack he enjoyed an outstanding game – carrying the ball for an incredible 167 meters. He now stands head and shoulders above the rest in attacking effect.

Discipline

Cardiff’s propensity to conceded cards away from home must be a headache for Wilson. In six away games this season in the Pro14, they’ve conceded a yellow card in each game, and a further red thanks to Owen’s pedantry in Glasgow. They are also averaging 12.5 penalties a game away from home – with the Ospreys under seven at the Liberty. All the signs are there for further misery for fans of the visiting team.

Prediction

Despite the poor season the Ospreys are having, by almost any metric the visitors will struggle in this game. But, with the return from injury of many key players, they will come away with a losing bonus point, eventually going down 24-17.

Cardiff Blues vs Scarlets Preview

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Head to Head

The Scarlets have a 38% win record in Cardiff since 1997 – one of their less happy hunting grounds. Last season, Cardiff were aiming for five wins on the trot – a remarkable statistic considering the relative standing of the two teams. But this season, the pendulum has swung heavily to the Scarlets – Pro14 Champions and in top form in the league. But all is not lost for the home team. Following early defeats to Edinburgh and Glasgow, they will be aiming to extend a three game winning run at the Arms Park in the Pro14. In the reverse fixture in Llanelli in October, the home team were victorious by a 13 point margin. But Cardiff restricted the Scarlets to their fewest passes in a game this season, as well as the fewest number of runs.  The game hinged on poor tackling from Cardiff – the 58 tackles made in that game by some margin their worst performance of the season.

The Coaches

Ex-policeman Wayne Pivac was recruited to work in Llanelli when coaching Auckland in the ITM Cup. He has now been in charge for 115 games (all fixtures), and with a win ratio of 55% he’s the most successful coach for the club in the modern era. If we exclude friendlies, looking at all four Welsh professional teams, he’s the fourth most successful coach in the modern era. His focus on improving the Scarlets discipline and defence has seen his team concede on average only 2.32 tries per game – a big difference from Danny Wilson‘s record of 3.03.

The Referee

This fixture will be George Clancy’s 96th game in the Pro14 – a recording running back to Netherdale in October 2004 when he ref’d a Dragons away win. Only Nigel Owens has officiated in more games and only Owens and John Lacey are older. He’s refereed Cardiff 21 times with only 38% of games resulting in a victory for the capital-city based team. By contrast, the Scarlets have won 72% of their games when the Irishman was the referee. He ranks as the referee whose adjudication has resulted in the greatest percentage of victories for the team from Llanelli. Clancy is traditionally one of the more lenient referees usually averaging 0.3-0.4 cards per game. This game will be his second visit to the Arms Park this season, and he remains one of the refs least likely to be influenced by home crowds.

Attack

The Scarlets have secured “four try” bonus points in six of their eleven Pro14 games this season. Two seasons ago, they were in a similar position to Cardiff – struggling to turn three tries into four and secure that crucial bonus point. But under Pivac, they have become a far more ruthless team. Last season, Wilson’s Cardiff reached three tries on twelve occasions, and on nine of those failed to secure a bonus point. The Scarlets also have one of the better offloading games in the competition, but rather than excelling in any particular facet of attack, they are solid across the board. Cardiff, meanwhile, have carried the ball 681m less than their visitors this season, and rank towards their bottom of the table. Their offloading game is average, but they have the players who can make the clean breaks – indeed, they lead the competition in number of breaks made. Their challenge is a cohesion in attack that can capitalise on these breaks.

Set Piece

The Scarlet’s lineout is a stand out as one of the best in the league, though to be fair the high number of throw ins could be because teams opt to kick to touch against them. Only Munster have thrown in to more lineouts.  Both teams have solid set pieces and other than the home team’s renown weakness at defending driving lineouts, this facet of the game will not be the deciding difference on the day.

Defence

Only Leinster and Glasgow have conceded fewer points this season than the Scarlets, and only Glasgow have conceded fewer tries. Conceding turnovers are a problem for the Scarlets. Only Glasgow have turned over possession more frequently this season, so the home side should expect chances to come their way. Conversely, Cardiff have coughed up possession infrequently – only Treviso being more frugal. They’ve also made 248 tackles more than the Scarlets this season, and sit third in the league for tackle success rate.

Discipline

No team has been penalised more in the Pro14 than Cardiff (120 penalties) this season and no team less than the Scarlets (76). The visitors to the Arms Park average less than 7 penalties per game – only Exeter have a better record across the three major European leagues. Look a little deeper and Cardiff’s stats reveal a big discrepancy in penalties conceded away from home (75) as opposed to games at CAP (45). It is the Scarlet’s remarkable discipline away from home (41) that is behind their total low penalty count. Two seasons ago, the Scarlets had a major problem with discipline. During the 2015-6 season, no team received more yellow cards (18) and they were averaging almost one card per game.  This season to date, no team has received fewer cards.

Prediction

The visit of the Scarlets will probably be Cardiff’s toughest home game this season, and the key factor – as with most local derbies – is how the players respond mentally to the pressure to perform well. Cardiff’s weakness in the corresponding fixture last season was an inability to capitalise on an advantage in territory and possession. Whilst this still remains a weakness in their game, expect the players to rise to the occasion and win 20-16.

Dragons vs Cardiff Blues Preview

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Head to Head

The Dragons scored their biggest victory over Cardiff shortly after the visitors took on the “Blues” moniker in 2004. Coming off one the best seasons ever for Newport, the home team secured a 23 point victory – a performance that has yet to be bettered. In recent years, with both teams languishing nearer the bottom of the league than the top, games have been much tighter, and the overall comparison of points and tries scored, reflects this. The head to head stands at 8 wins each at Rodney Parade since 2003.

The Coaches

This season is Bernard Jackman’s first in Newport, and Danny Wilson’s last in Cardiff. Despite a very poor away record (somewhat matched by his previous record in Grenoble), Jackman has a more respectable record at home. Much of the reason for the club’s poor standing in the league is down to bad away performances where his team has conceded on average almost 40 points a game. So far this season, the Dragons record is the second worse for any team in the history of the competition (only the Borders recorded worse results, and we all know what happened to them). By way of contrast, average points conceded per game less than half those conceded away from Newport. Wilson’s record in away games isn’t much better (standing at 33%), and Cardiff haven’t won on the road since the victory in Toulouse, more that two months ago.

The Referee

Ex-Cardiff Blues employee Andy Brace will take charge of his 30th Pro14 game on Boxing Day. At 29, he’s one of the youngest referees in the league.  This season, he’s averaging just under 20 penalties per game, not too dissimilar from his record last. Cardiff has a P7 W4 L3 record with Brace in charge, with the Dragons having only won once when the Irishman took the whistle. Brace is averaging 1.7 cards per game in the Pro14 – the highest of any ref who has officiated more than once this season (and more than he awarded last season).

Attack

Only Treviso and the Scarlets have made fewer clean breaks per game in the Pro14 than the Dragons, and it’ll be a point of concern for Jackman that the visitors have made more than any other team. Turning to defenders beaten, neither team has registered impressive attacking results here, with both averaging only 15 per game – some way behind Leinster and Glasgow’s record of 20 per game. Off loads and meters run are similar for both teams.

Set Piece

At the set piece, Cardiff’s lineout shows better stats that the home team’s, with both the Dragons and their visitors have similar records for the scrum. Wilson’s selection of a more lightweight starting XV and a heavier bench suggests that the visitors will aim to play the game at pace.

Defence

This season, only the Kings have conceded more points than the Dragons, but this is not down to individual player’s mistakes. The Dragons have the best home tackle completion ratio in the league – standing at 91%. Against the Ospreys in October, they made 211 tackles – a figure only bettered by Cardiff’s 233 in Galway. The Newport-based team also returned outstanding tackle stats in the recent draw with Ulster and in their home victory over Connacht. So if individuals are working extremely hard and making their tackle, why is the team conceding so many points?

Discipline

The Dragon’s discipline is good this season – by some margin better than Cardiff’s. Last season was the reverse. The Newport-based team are averaging only 8.8 penalties per game, whilst their big city neighbours are pushing 11. Both teams have been carded six times this season, though the Dragons have conceded 4 yellow cards in Newport – the highest number of cards at home of any team in the Pro14 this season.

Prediction

The Dragons go into this game having chalked-up an excellent performance against Ulster and also pushed under-rated Newcastle hard in the Challenge Cup in Newport. Cardiff, meanwhile, have put in two less-than-impressive performance against Sale. The momentum is with the home team and they will win 25-16.

Cardiff Blues vs Sale Preview

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Head-to-Head

Since the rebel season, Cardiff have faces Sale six times in the Welsh capital, each game going the way of the home team. Games tend to be fairly high scoring affairs, which should suit Cardiff’s search for an essential bonus point on Sunday. This fixture will be the first time for the teams to meet at the Arms Park in a competitive fixture in over 10 years.

 

The Coaches

With the sacking of Jim Mallinder in the week, Rob Baxter’s current tenure at Sale is now the third longest amongst current coaches in the Aviva Premiership.  Only Mark McCall and Dai Young have been around longer. Sale are a very different team away from their home patch. This season, they’ve only won two games on the road – the sum total of away victories for the whole of last season. Both victories this season came against Worcester, at Sixways. Whilst Cardiff’s home record is also far from impressive – only four wins this season at the Arms Park, they can justifiably claim to present a different proposition at home.

The Referee

Sunday’s game will be refereed by Dr Thomas Charabas, who at 37 is one of France‘s more experienced referees (by age). He’s refereed at CAP before when Calvisano were the visitors in January 2016. That game saw the home team run out convincing winners, but it’s unlikely we’ll see a similar result this weekend. This will be his eighth Challenge Cup game, and the first time he’s refereed Sale.  Last season, he was averaging 23 penalties per game, and was one of the most officious referees in France. But this season, things seem to have changed. He’s now averaging only 17.2 penalties per game and has a remarkable record of only issuing three yellow cards in the six Top 14 games he’s ref’d this season. This makes puts him firmly at the bottom of the yellow card table. Furthermore, his 66% home win record puts him below the Top14 average of 74% for home victories this season.

Attack

Cardiff’s anemic performance last week in Manchester was defined by desperately poor stats. They managed only two offloads during the game (one each from Seb Davies and Rey Lee-Lo) – one of their poorest performance in the last three seasons (if not longer). Similarly, the team only made two breaks during the game (one each from Aled Summerhill and Matthew Morgan) – again, their worst this season. Only against Glasgow, did the team beat fewer defenders this season, and their meters run was also one of the lowest recorded. It makes for grim reading. Ironically, despite the margin of victory, Sale’s figures are also far impressive, but their seven offloads stands out as the biggest difference in attack between the two sides.

Set piece

Although Cardiff secured 100% of their ball from the scrum last week, so did the home side. Meanwhile, at the lineout, Sale recorded a 100% success rate, whilst the visitors only managed 89%. Only the Scarlets this season have kicked more to touch when facing Cardiff, and Sale’s 34 kicks in the game was their second highest kick count of the season. So far this season, Gethin Jenkins has only played 57 minutes of rugby, so without doubt he will be looking to lead from the front in the tight and the return of a rested Josh Navidi will also boost the pack.

Defence

Danny Wilson will be pleased with Cardiff’s 94% tackle completion rate last week and also with the number of turnovers the team won – 16 is their 4th best figures for the season. The greatest problem was their use of the ball. With almost an entire team out with injury, Wilson’s options are limited, but he’s chose to make only two changes to the back line, with Tomos Williams coming in at scrum half for Lloyd Williams and Willis Halohalo replacing Rey Lee-Lo in the centre. Both “rested” players feature on the bench. In the pack, five changes see a major rejigging of resource.  Josh Turnbull slips to the bench for a well-earned rest – he’s spent more time on the pitch (801 minutes) than any other player in the squad this season.

Discipline

Sale are the most carded team in the Aviva Premiership so far this season, and so despite Thomas Charabas’ leniency expect at least one player to take a 10 minute rest. This is nothing new, they were also the most carded team last season as well. This season in the Pro14, Cardiff are conceding on average 10.7 penalties per game, with Sale at 10.2 penalties per game in the Aviva Premiership.

 

Prediction

Expect a much improved performance from Cardiff this week with the home team set for a 29-14 victory. However, once more, they will fail to secure a bonus point which could prove costly in their bid to secure a home quarter final.

Sale vs Cardiff Blues Preview

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During the professional era, Sale Rugby Union Football Club were at their peak during the mid-2000s. During the 2005-6 season, they finished top of the English Premiership by a margin of five points. Well funded, they ranked as one of the richest clubs in England, thanks to the support of Brian Kennedy. But when the money dried up, the club’s turnover fell from £9.3m in 2005-6 to £7.9m in 2009 (ironically, the same at that registered by the Cardiff Blues in that season), and the club were almost relegated from the top tier. Since then, they’ve been a solid mid-table performer, sometimes reaching the Champions Cup, but never really making an impression. Last season, Sale registered 20 defeats – only one less than their all time poorest season. Cardiff’s record was little better, with an increase of 3 defeats on the previous season and on 18 occasions the club registered a loss.

This season, Sale have yet to record a victory in the Champions Cup, with a draw against Toulouse at home and an away defeat in Lyon. Cardiff – meanwhile – stand at the top of Pool 2 with a home victory over Lyon and an away victory in Toulouse.

Head-to-Head

Cardiff have faced Sale away from home on a total of seven occasions in the modern era; two friendlies, twice in the Anglo-Welsh Cup and three times in the Heineken Cup. Only once – in 2008 – did the register the narrowest of victories.

The Coaches

Sale’s current director of rugby is Steve Diamond, an ex-player at the club with experience coaching at Saracens and the man who led the Russian national team to the 2011 Rugby World Cup. His current stint at the club began in October 2012 and he’s now been in charge for 165 fixtures – only Jim Mallinder, Rob Baxter, Mark McCall and Dai Young have been around for longer at the top of the English game. Diamond’s coaching has seen a focus on home victories, with a respectable 63% win ratio. Away from home is another story and Sale are one of the worst travellers in the Aviva Premiership. Danny Wilson’s results from his 76 games in charge show a close similarity to Diamond’s. His team also struggles away from home with only a 33% win ratio.

The Referee

Saturday’s game will be refereed by Pierre Brousset, a relative newcomer to the ranks of professional referees. Still only 28 years old, he began his career in the Top 14 in France last season. He is the youngest referee currently active in the Top 14. In 84% of the games he’s refereed, the home team has been victorious. This compares with the competition average of 74%. He has yet to referee either Sale or Cardiff. This season, Brousset is less likely to award penalties (averaging 17 per game) than he was last season (when he averaged 23.2 penalties per game), and as for awarding yellow or red cards, last season he averaged 2.3 per game, whereas  this season, it’s 1.8 per game.

Attack

Sale have scored 32 tries in the Premiership so far this season which makes the team one of the more formidable in attack in that competition. Cardiff have scored 10 fewer and a porous defence means the Welsh team is somewhat off the pace in Conference A of the Pro14.  Sales’ success is built on a strong carrying game, with an emphasis on running hard with ball in hand over kicking and passing. Only Exeter and Saracens have run more meters this season.  However, the teams offloading game is not the strongest, nor is their ability to make clean breaks. Meanwhile, Cardiff’s offloading game is equally unimpressive. No team has made more clean breaks than Cardiff in the Pro14 this season, and perhaps one can point at an unsettled back row as a reason why the team has failed to capitalise on this facet of their game. Although Cardiff’s tactical approach to kicking remains virtually the same whether playing home or away (averaging 20 kicks per game), Sale’s data shows a some differences. Looking at data over the last two seasons, we can expect Sale to kick between 26 and 28 times during a home game.

Set piece

Sale’s scrum is one of the strongest in the league, and only in the games against Worcester, Newcastle and Northampton did they fail to record a 100% success rate. However, their lineout is one of the weakest (with a success rate of only 82%) and both Newcastle and Exeter’s victories at the AJ Bell stadium this season were built on attacking the home team’s lineout. Sale have pinched 21 lineouts this season, with Cardiff managing 19. Cardiff’s lineout success is one of the highest in the Pro14, with a scrum success rate firmly mid-table.

Defence

Both team’s tackle stats for this season show a remarkable similarity, with Cardiff averaging 118 tackles attempted per game – exactly the same as Sale‘s. Completion ratios are equally similar. Turnovers remain a vital part of the game and provide a launch pad from which teams can counter attack against disorganised defensive patterns. Cardiff’s form in this facet of the game last season was unaffected by whether they played at home or away from home – conceding on average 14 turnovers per game. Meanwhile, Sale’s record showed a difference between home and away.

Discipline

Last season in the Aviva Premiership, Sale received more cards than any other team at home – a trend that has continued into this season. Last season in the Pro12, only Zebre were carded more often than Cardiff, though this season has seen a slight improvement.

Sale are one of the most penalised teams in the Aviva this season – averaging 10.2 penalties per game. Last season, discipline was also a problem and they topped the table with 10.5 penalties per game. Cardiff’s discipline was of a higher standard in 2016-7, conceding only 8.6 penalties per game, though this season the data reads an ugly 10.7 penalties per game on average.

In the Pro14 this season, Cardiff are a mid-table team who are carded every 18 penalties they concede. Last season, they were more likely to be carded, conceding a card every 12 penalties. This figures are close to those recorded by Sale, who – during the 2016-17 – received yellow cards at a rate faster than any other team. The situation is no better this season, where their rate of conceding a card is the highest in the league again (discounting Saracens, who have yet to concede a yellow or red card in the Aviva Premiership this season).

Prediction

This fixture promises to be a tough one for the Cardiff Blues. The outstanding away win in Toulouse aside, results away from home this season has been poor. With Pierre Brousset in charge, there will be plenty of penalties and cards and Sale remain a force at home. The home team’s set piece is strong and they will kick the penalties that the ref awards. Expect pressure from driving lineouts, and Cardiff’s defence is a real weakness in this facet of play. The home team will win this game with relative ease, 33-19.

The Six Nations – only half-a-competition

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It’s that time of year again when club competitions are just beginning to take off and gather some momentum, the international game gate crashes the party and rips out the guts of squads rendering fixtures a lottery.

If your team is in a country where teams are plentiful, squads heavy with competition for places and bank accounts full and ready to spend money on southern hemisphere players looking to earn some cash, then you may feel the pain less than others. It also helps if you’re team is in a league of 14 others – populated by just the right saturation of “indigenous” participants.

However, if you’re a Celt, you’re in trouble. Squads are decimated, and even if national coaches deign to release players for club games, coaches have very little time to prepare and integrate these “here-today, gone-tomorrow” players. It takes some sort of organisational wizardry for a squad to be shorn of 20 or 30 players and still function. No wonder the Pro12 is the weakest of the three professional leagues in Europe – it’s only half a competition.

This season has seen the Pro12 start during the World Cup. Yes folks, that’s right, during the World Cup. So what we’re left with is basically a second XV competition. Of course it’s a great leveller – those who supply the bulk of the international squad suddenly find themselves facing teams like Connacht, or Newport Gwent Dragons who largely remain untouched by the ravages of the Six Nations.

So why is this rape and pillage of the club game allowed to continue? In the case of Ireland, the answer is simple – there’s only one employer, and he who pays the piper calls the tune. In the case of Wales, it’s more complex – a sort of mass kamikaze, group-think, lemmings racing towards the cliff.

Those propping up the pro-game in Wales want cash from the Welsh Rugby Union to keep funding their squads, and there’s little vision on show to indicate that they can see beyond the end of the next Six Nations-funded cheque. The Pro12 is a bit of a joke competition – derisory TV money from Ireland and an apathetic Welsh public that would much rather pay to see club competition against the English. It’s underfunded, poorly promoted, riven by gerrymandering and devalued by international call-ups. So the club owners in Wales need more money (no sign of it coming from the Pro12). So they are happy to support a never-ending stream of Team Wales fundraising games, which in turn weaken the Pro12 and the cycle continues. You get the picture.

If you’re a fan of club rugby, then this shambolic mess is crying out for some visionary leadership and someone willing to upturn the apple cart and bring some order to a fragmented northern hemisphere season that is strangling opportunities for faster growth.

Rugby players are athletes, and athletes are coached to peak at key events. If you’re planning for the Olympics, you will focus on building your fitness levels to maximum effect for that competition. What athlete could cope with “season” peaks dotted randomly around the calendar. If the international games is supposed to be the peak of the sport, why are international competitions held a few months after the season starts and then again slap, bang in the middle of the season? Shouldn’t they be at the end of the season – giving players a target to reach peak fitness and performance, building gradually throughout the season?

An overhaul of the international game is desperately needed. The half-cock Six Nations (usually decided by the nature of the draw as only half the fixtures are played) should be held at the end of the season – a focus for players to reach their pinnacle performance after domestic cup finals. And while we’re at it, what are the Italians doing in this competition? They should be dropped and a relegation play off for the bottom team introduced to break down the doors of the cosy closed shop. Play a Five Nations competition home and away and you have eight weekends to focus on. Add to that two more International Games (tours or other “fund-raisers” if you must) and the top of the pyramid has 10 international games a season. Enough. Abandon the Autumn Internationals (which only serve to fund Southern Hemisphere coffers) and suddenly the season is taking shape.

Start with domestic competitions and then move to the Europe-wide tournament. End the season with the international game. The international game is the pinnacle, with players peaking their performance for the end of the season. The club game is free to develop and gain momentum without losing key players and rendering many results a lottery.

Why is this obvious solution so difficult to implement? Well, at the root of the problem is the fatal error of placing tradition above the development of the game. With the blazers in charge, the international game still gets to do pretty much as it likes, with the club game expected to fall into line. The closed-shop at the top end of the sport largely excludes any opportunity for tier 2 teams to break the stranglehold. And now with the increasing influence of TV money, the April-May-June period already contains a congested sporting calendar, so it’ll be a difficult sell to Murdoch and co..

So any change to this mess is not going to come from the blazers. It has to come from the club game – by far the better attended and faster growing section of the game. We can only hope that when club owners in France and England finally wake up to the potential of the sport and take control, that they will do a better job of developing the game than those Unions who are so averse to change.

Putting the cart before the horse

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cart before the horse650

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel
Samuel Johnson (April 7th, 1775)

The CTRL+C+V brigade in the Welsh press have started to call on the WRU to use the threat of ostracisation as a stick to beat players who dare to aspire to play their rugby at a higher level. This sort of institutionalised bullying is usually voiced by the xenophobes who have never lived or worked overseas, suckered in cushy jobs where their careers are secure as long as they tow the party line.

But as we all know, rugby players have short careers that can be brought to an end with the next tackle. Already almost all give up thoughts of a career running parallel to that outside the game – they could be left without a job and marketable skills at any time should injury strike. And now the press wants to pressurise players to take a massive cut in their salaries on the off chance that they will have a run of games playing for Wales?

But to bully the individual – that favourite tall poppy syndrome so loved by the Welsh – is a far easier option than to look at the root cause of the problem. Instead of asking why Wasps can potentially offer Leigh Halfpenny a salary far in excess of that which he could earn in Wales, the pro-establishment view is that we should accuse him of a lack of patriotism if he opts for the cash over the chance of just one more game for Wales (for as we know, at any time it could be his last).

The bottom line is that the press in Wales are so cosy with the WRU, that they fail to even discuss the real issues in Welsh professional rugby as these run to the heart of the back-scratching , nepotistic, insular nature of the sport.

Using the Welsh jersey as a means of blackmailing players is 100% reactive and does not address the root cause of the problem.

downward spiralThe argument runs that Welsh pro-teams lack the funds to retain talent, so they must rely on the WRU to part-fund their top players’ salaries with partial central contracts. But salaries are on the rise, so these contracts will need to become larger and larger. And where does the money come from? Yep, more internationals, which means the national coach wants every more access to players. More access to players by the national coach, means less access to the players by pro-teams’ coaches. No wonder the performances of our pro-teams have suffered. With performances poor, finding new investment is …. well, challenging. So the owners of the pro-teams go cap in hand to the Union for more money. And so the spiral continues.

Because of the WRU’s failure to agree to the offer an Anglo-Welsh league made 15 years ago, Welsh pro-teams are now stuck in a league run purely to produce players for the national squad. The league is so devalued, that it ran concurrently to the recent Rugby World Cup.  With such a small population base, TV rights are tiny when compared to those in France and England. And this is where revenues are really growing in the sport – TV money.

Fairly obviously, there is a limit to how many international games can be played in a season, though the Unions are doing their best to keep on flogging that dead horse. How can we break the spiral?

Using the threat of not getting selected for your country

Some in the press advocate using a players desire to represent his country as a (distasteful) way to alleviate this problem – they are too close to the establishment to address the real issue which is how to boost the club game through more investment. There is simply no discussion of this issue in Wales. Vacuous statements calling for our players to return home are made, but there’s no discussion of what’s stopping them. Citing examples of other countries like Australia’s recent changes, rather ignore the point that Australia is haemorrhaging players to the French and English leagues despite the fact that disruption of lugging your family across the globe is a little more disruptive than getting in your car and driving across the Severn to Bath every day.

The answer is the perennial problem in Welsh rugby – namely the WRU’s desire to control all aspects of the game … including the professional clubs.

The solution

The rate of growth of the club game in Europe is staggering. Crowds in France are now approaching the level seen in soccer and huge TV deals follow. Meanwhile, in England, across the board, attendances are booming and the popularity of the sport is also attracting record TV deals. And neither countries have enjoyed particularly successful international results of late.

Wales is a tiny country, and raising the drawbridge and ignoring these two markets on our doorstep demonstrates the worst case of myopia. Only through a vibrant, competitive club game can we retain our best players in Wales.

upward spiralSo the solution is for the WRU to focus on making our four teams vibrant, successful commercial businesses. They should be working with the RFU and begging the English clubs for access to their pyramid – even if it means entering the lower levels for there is no future in the present structure. If they can deliver a British League, then suddenly Welsh teams will have access to a much larger market and much larger TV money. Suddenly, it will make long term sense for players to keep playing in Wales. Pro-teams will improve, and success will follow.

With the WRU now (relatively) awash with cash, they should be using these funds to put a deal on the table that delivers a league that gives Welsh pro-clubs access to the English TV market.

A cycle of dependencey

So why isn’t this happening? Whether it’s the blazers at the Union or the press that refuses to ask the challenging questions or even some of the chairman at Welsh pro-teams, they are all stuck in a cycle of dependence that will see the professional sport spiral into oblivion in Wales. Put simply, so many individuals know that they are simply not up to the level of professionalism at English and French clubs. They would need to massively up their game. And we all know that’s the case in our press for it was only the English media who asked the searching questions during the Rogercaust.

But sadly, as we approach the denouement of meaningful professional club rugby in Wales, the press chooses to focus on the international end of the sport. They are putting the cart before the horse. The international calendar – as convoluted and disjointed as it is – is saturated. Growth will come/is coming from the club end of the sport.

But let’s not push for meaningful change in the focus of our game. Let’s instead focus on pressuring individual players. Heaven forbid that as a professional athlete you should want to play in a competitive league, with the chance to win trophies, in front of full stadia, working with real professionals at all levels of the game.  That would make you unpatriotic.

It’s a Squad Game

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Much that Danny Wilson does and says is very impressive, so the recent news that there will be fewer contracted players in the seasons to come is well received. Wilson is on the same path that Alec Evans took when he arrived at the time, in that he also recognised there were far too many players at training sessions thus diluting the quality of the work to be done.

Also, in the modern professional age, too many players means too much cost so cutting the ‘never will be’ players from the wage bill is nothing but sensible. It’s worth noting that 41 players need to be registered for the European Competitions, so that is the benchmark for squad sizes.

When Rudy Joubert arrived at the club, he wanted to set up his squad by age groups as much as quality, so that meant that there was a natural progression of talent. There is much sense in this approach as we all saw what happened to the Amlin Squad of 2010. Only Jenkins, Filise and Warburton remain from those who played in that game – that is NOT good squad planning.

To assess the job Wilson faces in remoulding this squad after years of awful recruitment, below is a list of players by quality. The first group (1-15) shows those who should be first team picks in a team challenging to win the PrO’12. As many of those should be internationals, the next group (16-30) should be your good club players who can step up to perform. The final group (31-45) should be the up and coming Academy graduates. The list shows how poor is this Cardiff squad:

1-15 (10)

Cory Allen, Gareth Anscombe, Alex Cuthbert, Tom James, Gethin Jenkins, Ellis Jenkins, Rey Lee Lo, Rhys Patchell, Sam Warburton, Lloyd Williams

16-30 (6)

Kristian Dacey, Jarrad Hoeata, Craig Mitchell, Josh Navidi, Blaine Scully, Josh Turnball

31-45 (13)

Scott Andrews, Macauley Cook, Cam Dolan, Jarrod Evans (Y), Dan Fish, Sam Hobbs, Tavis Knoyle, Dillon Lewis (Y), Ethan Lewis (Y), Garyn Smith (Y), Aled Summerhill (Y), Tomos Williams (Y), James Down

45+ (12)

Liam Belcher (Y), Gareth Davies, Tom Davies,  Gavin Evans, Tau Filise, Tom Isaacs, Lewis Jones, Lou Reed, Matthew Rees, Richard Smith, Adam Thomas, Manoa Vosawai

As you can see, the squad is dreadfully imbalanced. The players marked (Y) are the Academy graduates who could be pushing through so it’s good to see 6 of those in the correct category. What stands out, of course, is 11 players who should be culled from the squad completely. The list also shows that only three of the six non-Welsh qualified players are in the correct category.

I believe that a turnover of those 12 players is needed and that is assuming that Patchell stays and more Academy graduates feature in the 31-45 group. The first team needs 5 of those players and 7 more need to be added to the ’15-30′ list.

So where will those players come from, who are they and what would they cost?

1-15: Hooker (nWq), Tight Head (nWq), Second Row (nWq), Second Row (Bradley Davies), Number 8 (Ross Moriarty)

16-30: Loose Head (Rhys Gill), Second Row (Time Server), Second Row (Time Server), Back Row, Scrum Half, Centre, Centre

As you can see from the list above, I don’t think that it is possible to recruit to becoming a PrO’12 contender by next season as the Welsh qualified players of suitable quality just aren’t available without raiding another Welsh team. Therefore, there is an onus on Wilson to coach players up that squad ranking. The big challenge is for players like James Down, Lou Reed, Macauley Cook, Tavis Knoyle and Garyn Smith to move up that list.

Losing Patchell to gain Halfpenny seems to be a strong rumour, but that wouldn’t really move the squad along. The key work needs to be done in Wilson’s specialist area of the front five.

Is the budget there to do this? I’d say releasing the players rated 45+ should free up at least £800,000 a year which should go most of the way to playing for the 5 first team players needed.

I doubt that there is anything left in the budget for the 7 squad players needed, so Wilson’s coaching team are going to have to work really hard to push Cardiff up that PrO’12 table.

Welsh Qualified Players Playing in England:

Bath: Sid Blackmore (BR), Dominic Day (SR), Jonathan Evans (SH), Rhys Priestland (OH)

Exeter: Phil Dolman (FB), Tomos Francis (THP), Adam Hughes (C), Damien Welch (L)

Gloucester: Richard Hibbard (H), James Hook (OH), Ross Moriarty (BR), Mat Protheroe (OH), Nicky Thomas (THP)

Harlequins: Owen Evans (LHP), Adam Jones (THP), Jamie Roberts (C)

Leicester: Owen Williams (OH)

London Irish; Andrew Fenby (W), Darren Allinson (SH)

Northampton: George North (W)

Sale: Eifion Lewis-Roberts (P), Nick Macleod (OH), Jonathan Mills (SR)

Saracens: Rhys Gill (LHP)

Wasps: Bradley Davies (SR), Edd Shervington (H), Thomas Young (BR)

Worcester: Jean-Baptiste Bruzier (SH), Sam Lewis (BR), Joe Rees (THP)

Rugby in Japan

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On 16th September, Tier 2 Rugby wrote on excellent article on Japanese Rugby. Full of insight into the professional arm of the sport, it highlighted a number of reasons why Eddie Jones decided to part company with the JRFU. But Tom felt the analysis was a little too westerner-centric, didn’t explain why certain conditions exist in the sport in Japan and offered solutions which were overtly “just-do-it-like-we-do-in-the-west”, ignoring the local cultural context. Here’s his response.

One of the big successes at this year’s Rugby World Cup has been the rise of Japan. Under the excellent tutelage of Eddie Jones (and ably supported by Marc dal Maso, Leigh Jones and Steve Borthwick), the Brave Blossoms went notched up as many victories as did Wales – although unlike Wales, they actually defeated one of the big three SANZAR nations. Were it not for a schedule that favoured Scotland, they could well have qualified to play Australia in a quarter final.

But despite this success, Eddie Jones’ frustration with a lack of change in Japanese rugby reached such a level that he decided not to renew his contract and is now moving to new pastures. How can this happen? How can someone who has achieved so much and is so well-respected both in Japan and around the world quit the role at the peak of his popularity?

The answer lies in the structure of the game in Japan.

A massive player base

Japan has one of the largest rugby-playing populations in the world. There are 3,000 plus teams in the country with a playing population of 120,000. Typically, players begin to learn the sport from an early age as young as five or six at the many rugby schools dotted around the major cities. From there, they join the school network and then on to Univeristy. The best players typically receive some sort of scholarship from rugby-playing private Universities and these players can then be recruited by Japan’s largest corporations who fund the pinnacle of the sport in Japan – the Top League.

Typical of the Japanese education model, competition is tough. Although sport falls someway down the pecking order in Japan, to reach the peak you have to show total dedication and many hours application. But the path is narrow – for those who don’t play rugby at high school, it’s difficult to learn the game at University. And of course, for those who don’t enter University, there’s a big gap.

One’s pedigree is a prized asset in Japan, and those who have watched Japanese rugby from the stands know that on the sheet of paper that passes for a program that is handed out before the game, players names are listed with the University they attended and even their high school. It’s rare to see a player at the top level who is not a graduate. And when you consider that only 45% of the Japanese population are graduates, you can see the wastage in the system.

Takashi Sato is a 24 year old scrum half who plays for Kobe Steel. This is his profile page on the club’s web site. He started playing rugby from the age of 8 at Neyagawa – a well known club in the north of Osaka. His junior high school was Sada, again in Osaka. Then moved to Tokai Gyosei (a feeder for high school for Tokai University) and then finally to Doshisha Univeristy – one of the top rugby playing universities in the country. His club publish these details for each player in their squad.

Further complications arise around which university and which high school players attend. There is still a culture in Japan that dictates that it is not possible to excel at sport and academically – sport is seen as somewhat frivolous. So the better academic institutions typically either do not possess a strong sporting culture, or if they do, the two paths are very segregated. You have a choice, study hard and make a successful career or “play” rugby. You won’t find an international rugby player who is a qualified doctor.

Town-based teams very much sit outside this pyramid, and as such, it’s rare that players can move from traditional clubs into the professional leagues. It’s a narrow path – go to a rugby-playing high school, secure a scholarship to a private university who play rugby and then get recruited by a company to play in their company team.

University Rugby

There are two University leagues in Japan – one base in the east and the other in the west. In the Eastern Japan Kansai League (based around Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto-Nara), there are seven leagues containing 48 teams. Those Universities at the top of those leagues recruit the better players from high school, and the numbers involved are staggering. Many of the top University teams in Western Japan have player numbers in the hundreds. But there is simply no infrastructure to cope with these sort of playing numbers. Coaches are largely volunteers, even if the top Universities are recruiting the better coaches (Wayne Shelford enjoyed a stint at Ritsumeikan Univeristy). Despite a huge number of pitches the gap between an under-coached and ill-prepared elite and the rest is wide even within these large University clubs. With an over-concentration of talent in certain universities – many talented players or late developers rarely see a coach and revert to playing rugby merely for fun where results are not important. At second tier universities, facilities are chronically underfunded. Only a strong network of ex-players keeps these clubs afloat – sponsoring everything from weight training equipment to jerseys and training camps.

Company Teams in Japan

An effort has been made to add a geographical spread to rugby in Japan, but teams are still based around the corporate model. Here’s one example of how the systems works. A head of one of Japan’s major manufacturing companies was approached by the head of the JRFU and encouraged to increase investment in his company’s rugby team. New training facilities were built and the player budget increased (to attract top players from overseas). Why do companies invest in rugby in Japan? It is seen as partly marketing, partly something for employees to get behind and associate with and partly social responsibility. All this, however, has nothing to do with creating a pyramid from which international quality players will emerge.

There are a number of misconceptions around the indigenous players who are recruited by these companies from University. On the positive side, players have a strong chance of a career after rugby if they stay loyal to their company. The old “employee for life” system is dying out – despite what the out-of-date Western media will tell you. But nevertheless, when players careers are so relatively short, and can be ended with one tackle, having the security of stable employment is something those on the fringes of the sport would very much appreciate.

However, the idea that these players are semi-professional is misleading. They train twice a day, and although they do spend time at the office, the work they do is trivial in nature compared to more career-minded employees. “Working” at the marketing department means time spent in the marketing department, whereas professional players in the UK may spend an equal amount of time at the local Starbucks.

Traditional Club rugby

Japan’s multi-layed system also includes player who play for the love of the game for local town or city based teams. One of these is Okayama Rugby Football Club. Founded in 1953, they’re a club with 57 players, practicing once a week with a game on a Sunday. They have close links with local schools and also run a senior’s team. You could say that they are a typical rugby club that we would see in any Tier 1 country. They’ll pick up players who don’t travel the narrow path to contracts with the corporate teams and select players of all ages – perhaps those who don’t follow the university route but still love the sport. Hang on a minute, aren’t things supposed to be different in Japan?

Problems with this system

There is a horrendous waste of resources in that capable players who fall outside this narrow path have no way to break into what is essentially a ring-fenced, closed shop. Sadly, coaching standards are very low and receive low respect and priority. Despite being very reliant on High School and University coaches, the JRFU has no influence on who is recruited. An accreditation system has been created, but it falls a long way behind those in more developed countries. There is even a real possibility of graduates who do reach company teams actually seeing a fall in the standard of coaching.

But the money swilling around corporate Japan is huge. Vast salaries are paid to imported (usually) southern hemisphere players who play a limited number of games. With no pyramid in place between the corporate game and younger players, the scope to improve on skills is limited. There is no meaningful trickle down effect. With their huge salaries, it could be argued that these foreigners are a real drain on a system that desperately needs funding at the lower levels.

Cultural Differences

To western eyes, many facets of Japanese education seem strange or even outright bizarre. But from Japanese eyes, some of the practices in Western education are sloppy, lightweight and frivolous.

One of the many strengths of Japanese culture is the belief in total dedication to one’s path in life – make your choice and work to become the best you possibly can at this. This flows through into their approach to sport. So training can be an all-consuming affair from a young age. Rather than criticise this approach as limiting those who want to switch sport as they mature, shouldn’t we really be asking the question that given this dedication, why isn’t the system producing top class players? The playing numbers are huge – unlike tiny countries like New Zealand – so it really isn’t a numbers game. The issue is what is being coached – not how many are receiving the coaching.

The counterargument to the proposition that players like Courtney Lawes (basketball) or Alex Cuthbert (VIIs) crossing from other sports is a good thing, is to imagine how good a player they would be if they had the total dedication from an early age that is widespread in Japan.

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Poor facilities

So with so much dedication on show from Japan’s young rugby players, why doesn’t this transfer to success on the international stage?

Among the many criticisms Eddie Jones made of the sport in Japan, two in particular are worth looking at in more detail. The repetitive nature of coaching in junior high school was described as mundane and offering little variety. A second criticism (this time of players at the higher level of the sport) was of poor tackling skills. Both these issues have their roots in dreadful facilities.

Tenri is a city just outside Osaka in Western Japan. It is located in the prefecture of Nara, one of Japan’s ancient capitals and contains one of the nations top rugby schools. From elementary to high school right through to University, there is pathway for privately educated students to excel – and at Tenri, rugby is in the blood. This year, the team will complete in the 95th National High School Championship. Many of these high school games are televised – how many tier one countries can claim to show high school rugby on terestrial television?

One would expect such an institution such as this to possess some of the best facilities around. But this is far from the case. Pitches at lower levels in Japan are typically compacted dirt, inter sprinkled with grit. In the baking heat of the Japanese summer, these turn to concrete. In autumn when the typhoons visit, they can turn into mud-baths. Players regularly suffer serious abrasions to the skin, and in the summer months, these can become infected. Coaching a contact sport on these grounds is highly challenging. It’s really no wonder that the safe option is to choose repetitive passing drills.

In Japan’s densely populated cities, even finding a grass pitch is a challenge. Opportunities for joint practice sessions with corporate teams offer the possibility of access to better training facilities, but with the strict seniority system in Japan, games between Universities and company teams are a rare occurrence.

JRFU position

The JRFU recognises the challenge they face in Japan and they have a plan. Despite the recent upsurge in popularity as a result of success in England, there has been a long term decline in the popularity of the sport in the traditional base at Univeristy level. Faced with an impenetrable mass media the JRFU has struggle to get air time – the rise of soccer and the pre-eminence of baseball has proved an insurmountable barrier. Don’t be fooled by the wealth of the corporate teams, a lack of investment has seen clubs at all levels struggle. A lack of presence at youth level, in VIIs and the women’s game is chronic.

The JRFU has a strategic plan to drive the game forward in time for the next rugby world cup. Two main targets have been set

Target 1: Aware of the need to widen the historically narrow pipeline described above, the JRFU will focuss on community sports clubs, increasing the spread of tag rugby and the better utilisation of existing sporting facilities. They’ve set a target to increase participation by 75,000 (instituting a “200,000 campaign”).

Target 2: They aim to increase the number of spectators of the domestic Top League to 1.4 million by 2019 – a figure which would compare favourably to the cumulative attendances of Europe’s Rugby Champions Cup. This they hope to achieve through a number of branding and marketing initiatives (though ironically, their best promotional efforts have been achieved by the departing Eddie Jones and his team). One excellent initiative is that they will begin to build a database of all coaches, referees and players in an effort to understand the scope of the sport.

Challenges for the JRFU

The existing fragmented system in Japan is not conducive to producing a winning international team. Change is needed, but Japan doesn’t do dramatic change very well. And if anything, things are about to get worse.

The imposition of a Super Rugby franchise on the existing structure will create more of a circus than a development tool for the national side. The franchise won’t even play all its games in Japan, let alone create any links with local talent factories. Corporate owners will see it as competition, and already we’ve seen too many players who aspire to playing at a higher level ignoring the local franchise and moving overseas. It has all the makings of an approaching failure.

How to develop the game in Japan?

Although one could argue that it is not the job of the National Coach to create a plan for revolutionising the structure of the sport in Japan, one could also counter-argue who would know better than the national coach? Whilst we’ll probably never know what went on behind closed doors between Eddie Jones and the top echelons of the Japanese Rugby Football Union, it’s a real shame that he didn’t publicise what he wanted before walking away from the job. There’s others he could learn from in this respect.

In the absence of proposals from Eddie Jones, here’s three ideas that will hopefully stimulate some thinking.

1

Investment is desperately needed in facilities at the local level – and that mostly means Desso-type “GrassMaster” pitches. (In fact, this is already happening, though not necessarily from funds originating from the JRFU.) As mentioned above, the JRFU is working on an accreditation system for coaches, but imagine how successful this could have been if the official manual was written by Eddie Jones.

2

The sport needs to learn from the success of soccer in Japan which started off as a company-based league before finally moving to the J-League – a city-based competition.

3

The JRFU – working with the corporate sector – needs to build centres of excellence around regional teams and develop a pathway for all players, regardless of their age or academic pathway. These new teams should be encouraged to create links with local schools, universities and other corporations. JRFU needs to see these teams at the top of the pyramid, with selection and contracts offered to players irrespective of age.

Achieving this is a massive challenge for the JRFU and they will need all their years of experience and links with industry to make this happen.

The Super Rugby Franchise is a foreign creation by well-meaning people who really don’t understand the structure of the game in Japan and what needs to happen to encourage development. Without doubt, outside influence will help force change in Japan – as it has done throughout history. But this franchise is not the answer and could prove to be a further dangerous drain on funds. The answer is local, inclusive development, funded by rich corporations investing in the community.

But what is certainly beyond discussion, is that Japanese rugby will be all the poorer for that fact that Eddie Jones won’t be around to oversee or have an input into these or any other changes.

Tom was one of those atrocious Univeristy coaches in Japan where he lived for over four years. Although he did his best to avoid long and tedious sessions, some of his ex-players are disappointed that he didn’t apply the same principles to his post-match debriefings.

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