The Guinness Pro 14 is hardly into autumn and already coaches are chopping and changing their teams. Critics have declared this undermines the tournament. Not so, argues, Harri Morgan who says freedom to select some and rest others actually protects its future.
Cast your mind back to the halcyon days spent playing on Championship Manager. The scenario – you’re boss of a newly promoted club, fighting to retain Premier League status.
You’ve got Taribo West on a free transfer. That’s not relevant, but you always get Taribo.
It’s December and you have the daunting prospect of three games in eight days. Two away fixtures against top six sides and one home match against a fellow survival battler. What is a realistic return?
(No, you can’t reboot the game if you lose!)
Three points from the “six pointer” clash against your relegation foe would surely warrant a thumbs up from the board and deter the dreaded campaign of hate from the supporters club.
In the 2009/10 season, Mick McCarthy faced this situation as manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers. His results went like this:
12/12/2009 – Tottenham Hotspur 0 – 1 Wolverhampton Wanderers
15/12/2009 – Manchester United 3 – 0 Wolverhampton Wanderers
20/12/2009 – Wolverhampton Wanderers 2 – 0 Burnley
In February of that season, the Molineux-based club received a suspended fine of £25,000. The former Republic of Ireland boss made 10 changes to the starting line-up between the win at White Hart Lane and the defeat at Old Trafford three days later. This was deemed to amount to a breach of a League regulation on selection.
Wolves stayed up.
In the context of survival, the six points yielded from those eight days in December rendered Big Mick’s shrewd strategic selection at Old Trafford a master stroke.
The Guinness Pro 14, and its previous incarnations have often been maligned by Anglo-French critics for the relative nonchalance with which bosses chop and change their troops.
Already this season those haters have been given the opportunity to pop above the parapet and fire shots.
In round one, Leinster took a team to Cardiff Arms Park that was devoid of their Irish Slam busters.
Then, in round three, the Ospreys made 12 changes to their starting XV as they headed to Munster. It was a pragmatic preference for protecting their stars over their unbeaten start to the season.
The weakened sides were no doubt part of season long strategie – plans that factor in certain defeats as part of the journey.
The fact that Leinster were able to get an away day win at Cardiff Blues, whilst the Ospreys took a drubbing out in Cork, is a nod to the differential between the strength in depth of the two squads.
It’s a disparity those outside the Leinster branch would attribute to a positive correlation between the Dubliners’ healthy budget and the depth of their talent pool.
Conversely, the European Champions might prefer a narrative that emphasises the benefits derived from the trust and exposure they have given to their fringe players over an extended period.
The Ospreys will no doubt hope their squad members who took the field in Cork will have learned lessons that will better equip them for future deployment.
In the meantime, Alun Wyn Jones and his fellow cohort of first choice players returned to centre stage at The Liberty Stadiuml last Saturday night.
The Welsh region defeated a Benetton outfit that is in the advanced stages of shaking off the derogatory ‘Italian team’ tag.
One would imagine that the ‘W’ would have left Allen Clarke and his management team feeling quietly vindicated over their Munster selection.
When the Premier League punished Wolves back in 2010, the judicial justification was that they had breached rules obliging them to field their strongest team and to act in the utmost good faith toward the league and other clubs.
These were rules that protect the credibility of the League – credibility without which the commercial viability of the game would risk taking a major slap to the chops.
Would such legislation enhance the credibility and in turn commercial viability of the Pro 14?
The argument writes itself. Roll out the big guns week-in and week-out and the audiences will roll in to watch them fire.
The reality, though, is that any attempt at introducing such a ruling would be akin to doing the breast stroke into a tidal wave. The force of nature being the movement for promoting player welfare in rugby union.
In the medium to long term, the ability of the sport to position itself in a manner whereby welfare and excitement can live happily ever after, represents the biggest challenge to the game – commercial or otherwise.
When assessing these examples of surrender/squad rotation we must take a deep breath and turn up the dials in our brain that control pragmatism and forward thinking. Simultaneously, we should dim the influence that we attribute to emotion.
Sure, as rugby fans we want to see the best players on the field every weekend. But, at what cost? If the subsequent fatigue adversely impacts players’ longevity or, indeed, their ability to peak on the European or international stage, then it’s counter-intuitive.
Yes, of course, there is sympathy for the supporters who paid to travel to Cork to witness their second string take a whipping.
If the Ospreys have a sense for being a decent corporate citizen then they should see that those fans get looked after on another occasion.
However, as with the Wolves example, we must accept that the reality of professional sport demands that management teams are given the freedom to align selections to their season’s objective as opposed to the immediate 80 minutes.