Judgement Day IV – is it worth the hype?

This weekend sees episode IV of Judgement Day, the chance to see all four Welsh Pro teams in one hit.  Cardiff Blues v Ospreys and Newport Gwent Dragons v Scarlets.

It certainly rouses interest, especially over the last two years.  54k fans turned up to watch last year and as we can see from Pro 12 boss Martin Anyai’s tweet today 65k tickets have been sold for this year, with five days still to go.

Quite impressive right? Well, the day has certainly moved on somewhat, for sure.  Back in 2014, Steve James in the Telegraph didn’t paint a terribly bright picture of proceedings. On the backdrop of political in-fighting were previous incarnations painted.

At the heart of the issue for the four pro Teams in Wales was cash – they need more of it to be properly competitive with the English and French.  At that stage, Regional Rugby Wales were engaged in an unseemly scrap with Roger Lewis and the WRU.  It appeared that the Welsh Rugby Union were manoeuvring to put the four teams they had set up in 2003 out of business.  To wrest control and take ownership themselves.

Poorly negotiated sponsorship deals, poor remuneration for the work done by the pro teams to produce International players for the cash-cow that was and is Wales.  Not a popular opinion – indeed, if you were to read the press at the time, with few notable exceptions, the blame rested solely with the teams themselves.  Confused by Lewis debt reduction at WRU Towers, he was the shepherd, guiding unruly sheep,. and woe betide any that dare say otherwise.

Well, thankfully, those days are disappearing, slowly, but surely into the rear view mirror.  New men are running the Union now.  In Gareth Davies and Martyn Phillips, there’s a spirit of co-operation being fostered from bottom up, and it’s very positive.  Regional Rugby Wales have re-branded themselves as Pro(fessional) Rugby Wales, with a more forward thinking attitude.

Of course there’s still a major shortfall, where money is concerned.  At present, competing with the likes of England and France in Europe is a huge ask.  Their collective might, and sharp business acumen, I might add, have seen them shape the rugby landscape in the Northern Hemisphere.

Their hijacking of the old Heineken Cup, making it what it is today, has seen many a voice raised in opposition.  Across the water in Ireland, whose near monopoly of Europe in previous years has been eroded, there are many cries of “foul.”

Rightly or wrongly, and that’s a subject for a discussion on another day, the way those country’s clubs have run their ship has caused uproar.  However, in Wales, it’s the model that has been chosen.  That power-struggle was all about ensuring autonomy for the pro-game.  It’s fair to say, that Union run rugby is not the way to go.

Again, there are arguments against allowing rich businessmen to come in and run up huge debts in the pursuit of trophies.  However, there is little likelihood of these men walking away from their teams, leaving them in millions of £s or Euros of debt.  With the sponsorship deals negotiated by the French, the upcoming new agreement to be signed by the PRL and the RFU,  on top of their own TV monies, etc, the expert way they have built up their teams in their local areas, you can see the viability of what is being done.

It’s here that the Welsh teams need to catch up.  Judgement Day still doesn’t hit the spot truly.   Yes, it will be a fantastic “occasion.”  But that’s the issue – it’s a day out in the big smoke.  A day where fans, who pay their dues with season tickets, are relegated to poor view seats, whilst occasional fans get the best.  A day where one team will lose a home game and the revenue that brings.

A day where, still, the WRU will end up profiting more than the clubs themselves.  And that should not be the purpose of these days.  For all it’s hype, and the fact that thousands of people will be exposed to Welsh Pro12 Rugby that normally wouldn’t, the bread and butter of these four clubs needs to move forward. Should the clubs themselves share equal proceeds from the day, perhaps that would be a start.

More so, should there be a spike in attendances at Parc-y-Scarlets, BT Sport Arms Park, Rodney Parade and the Liberty, that would help too.  This year though, three teams still have an interest in league position.  Why should they be thinking of “entertaining” or evangelising for fans at such an important stage of the season?  Previous Days have had little or no effect on League attendances. It shouldn’t be asked of them to make this sacrifice at such an important time.

I will be attending, poor seat or no, but the WRU and PRW need to sit down soon and make some changes around this fixture. A big day such as this should benefit those involved, not the Union or Team Wales.  Its a great “occasion” but moving forward more thought needs to be invested on how best to improve the day itself and the beneficiaries.

Hopefully, it will be a good day, but also, next time it will appear in a different guise – should there be a next time.  If the clubs are intent on promoting there newfound professional outlook, this will be one of the things they look at to change, in some way.  Fundamentally, it hasn’t worked so far, unless bums on seats for someone else’s gain is the aim.  Let’s hope, for the sake of these four teams, we see a different approach in the future.  Go along by all means and enjoy – its a good day out.  But right now, fundamentally, that’s all it is.

Why Should Hopes be High for England Rugby?

A 6 Nations title should always be celebrated, a Grand Slam even more so.  England’s first Grand Slam since 2003, and only their second Championship in that time has understandably brought some extra rugby coverage in the National Press.  Forget the  supposed”paucity” of this season’s championship, 5 games, 5 wins is what rugby is all about.  It’s a business all about winning.

The engaging thing for me is not so much the team, as good as they may turn out to be, but the man who has come in to lead them, after a disappointing 4 years under Stuart Lancaster.

Eddie Jones, the coach who nearly stole Sir Clive Woodward’s thunder in 2003, has transformed opinions, feelings and outlook about and in, what is pretty much the same group of players that failed to perform at England 2015.

Not scared of a word or two, whoever he may upset, he’s not so much a breath of fresh air for Northern Hemisphere Rugby – many don’t like his outspoken attitude.  He does however bring a very different outlook to a set-up that had become almost too “touchy-feely” in its approach.

Martin Johnson seemed to lead a team that forgot about the privilege of representing their country in this great sport, whilst Stuart Lancaster’s approach was as diverse as you could possibly imagine.  It was all about image, it seemed for Lancaster, whilst the business of winning rugby matches seemed to be lost in the clamour for the right culture.

Jones on the other hand, has taken a different path.  That honour is at the forefront of all he does.  He appears to appreciate the responsibility and all that comes with it, as well as knowing that ultimately, nice guys usually come last.

There’s a huge irony for me, that it appears to have taken an Australian to point the English Rugby team in the right direction.  Perhaps, an Australian without the close connection to the last truly successful English coach would not have been able to get the team back on what seems to be approaching an even keel, but it’s such a wonderful meeting of opposites.

Then again, Australians are natural winners and it’s that ethos that needs instilling into rugby in Britain & Ireland.  You would hope that there isn’t a huge gap between “us and them” in the Southern Hemisphere.  Identifying where possible shortfalls may be, is the beginning of the job.

In Paul Rees’ article in The Observer last Sunday, Jones identified where he thought there was a shortfall.  He praised the professionalism of the English clubs but added

“…there is another part which is that highly unstructured, multi-phase, ball moving, continuous rugby. You can’t expect English clubs to condition their players for that, because they don’t need to be good at that. That’s the bit we need to add when we get them. It’s not a criticism of the clubs; it’s about what they’ve got to do and what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to use every minute when we are in camp to get the players to play a different sort of rugby.” 

Now, that isn’t rocket science is it?  Compare the approach of Wales to that ethos.  Up until recently, the successful blueprint in European Rugby was the one used by Wales.  Win the collisions, pay lip service to the set-piece, and kick the leather off the ball.

Interestingly enough, following these words from Eddie Jones, Warren Gatland today declared that his team had to lose weight. In a Wales on Line article penned by Andy Howell, Dan Lydiate declared that:

“if you’re lighter, you can get of the deck quicker.  When you are playing at a high tempo, you can’t afford to be carrying excess weight.”

A coincidence maybe?  A recognition from the Welsh management that there will be a change of approach? Well, the gist of the article was that one or two kilos could be the difference in these close games.  Lydiate’s assertion that he is 5lbs lighter than last year, 17st9lb, rather than 18st, tends to show where the Welsh mindset really is.

Eddie Jones’ approach, while putting an emphasis on fitness himself, is to use the physical nature of his players as part of a wider picture. You only have to look at the first half of the game against Wales in the 6 Nations.  Sean Edwards’ assertion that “he couldn’t get his head round” how Wales lost the game after outscoring England three tries to one, was possibly one of the silliest things I’ve heard.

The tactical nous shown by his team was actually a joy to behold.  Taking the game away from Wales’ big men, utilising the blind-side in attack, recycling quickly, organising his strike runners on the hoof.  Everything Wales have seemingly struggled to do in recent times.

Of course, the scoreline didn’t reflect the panning the first half suggested was on the way.  4 points was not a hiding, and as any real rugby fan knows, the game is an 80 minute contest, not one involving microcosms.  The challenge awaiting England in the summer in Australia is far greater than what they have met so far.

However, the signs are there for a bright future. World Cup winners?  That’s a long way off. There’s one guarantee though.  Eddie Jones won’t tolerate mediocrity.  Play your best and lose, you may be forgiven.  Any slacking off will be unforgiveable though.

As James Haskell, in a somewhat self-promoting interview in the Guardian with Donald Mcrae on Monday put it, Eddie Jones is like a “bomb waiting to go off.”  He’s also a “people person,” a man manager who attempts to get into the psyche of the players he coaches.  The work he did with Japan proves that beyond a doubt.  By looking at the assets he had, and how best to utilise them, he produced one of the greatest results in  the history of the game.

Different coaches have different methods to achieve the end result.  He may not turn out to be the real deal – or should I say, might not get England to be that.  But, step one of his journey is complete.  His warning to players, mind games they may have been, shows that there will be no resting on laurels.  My pre Six Nations prediction of an England Grand Slam turned out to be correct.

There’s a new sheriff in town now though.  The likes of Gatland and Schmidt may not be at the squeaky bum time stage yet, nor those Down Under, but this next year or two may see a shift in power, not just up here in the Northern Hemisphere, but down South too.