Thursday, 23 April 2015

England Qualified Players: are they legal or worthwhile?

In an article earlier this week we looked at England Qualified Players (EQPs), what were they and why did they matter to us this season.  In this article we’ll look at some of the effects of the EQP bonus on English rugby, whether the scheme is worthwhile and whether the scheme is even legal under EU law.

Some of the apparent effects of the EQP bonus have been on the surface very positive.  The rates of EQP in the Aviva Premiership are reported in the press at 71% and as high as they have ever been, many hail this as a great development and you can hardly call it a bad one.

According to Statbunker, the online database, there have been 491 players used this season with 308 of them English, or 62.72%.  Why the disparity?  The EQP stats are based on how often people play whilst the Statbunker ones are just on total players used.  Which suggests that contrary to popular belief English players are actually more likely to be picked than Johnny Foreigner.  It is also because players like Jonathan Mills will be counted as Welsh in Statbunker’s numbers but are EQP.

Ten years ago, before the EQP system was in force the number of English players in the league was 271 out of a total of 443, or 61.17.  To be at today’s figures of 62% there would only have had to be 6 foreign players replaced by English ones, and for today to be at 2004’s numbers we would have 300 English players, or 8 fewer than today.
English Players in Premiership

At a cost to the RFU of approximately £4m p.a. those 8 players are very expensive for little if any benefit to the national side.

The EQP scheme was introduced in 2008 and since its introduction England have won just one 6 Nations and no English club has won the European Cup, with only 3 finalists in 8 years.  Before the scheme was introduced English clubs had reached 6 finals in 8 years with 5 victories, the only defeat coming in an all English final.

There is a school of thought that the EQP scheme has stopped rugby following football’s lead of huge numbers of foreign players destroying the national team with France’s rugby side as further evidence; but this ignores a crucial difference between the sports and the nations. 

England’s Under 20s have won the past two Junior World Cups and reached a further 3 finals since 2008, France have reached no finals since 2006 when they won the Under 21 competition on home soil, in football England have reached just one European Under 21 final in 30 years.

You cannot simply blame clubs and foreign players in French rugby and English football without looking at the raw materials feeding into the bottom of the professional game.  Germany and Spain are home to football leagues just as competitive and almost as rich as England but have better youth set ups that feed greater numbers of domestic players and better national teams, England rugby would be just the same with a higher proportion of domestic players than France no matter the legislation.

So it’s pretty debatable whether the EQP scheme has any effect on the overall level of English players in the league, but what about its effect on individual matches and players?

We saw in 2012 Sale pick a deliberately weakened side in the final round of fixtures to just scrape inside their EQP quota, and just last month Bristol announced in the local press that due to the more stringent EQP demands in the Championship they would also be picking their side based on players’ nationality.

This might seem like a minor effect but fundamentally changes a player's value to their club.  As every club, every year, needs to hit the quota there is an upward pressure on wages for EQPs of the right quality.  

That is players good enough to play in great sides but not so good that England’s national team requires them for 1/3rd of the season.  If you are a player like Matt Mullan who would be a regular international for many nations but is behind 3 fantastic players for England you are a highly valuable commodity locking down 22 of the 330 EQP slots needed to earn approximately £300k.
You might say why is it a problem that English players are given a bit more leverage and a bit more cash in the bank?  The problem comes from the Salary Cap, as every extra pound that is extracted by players due to their EQP status comes from another part of the squad, perhaps explaining the decline in European performance over the last 8 years.

Richard Thorpe is a good quality squad player in the Premiership but he is never going to trouble the international selectors; it has emerged recently that he qualifies for Canada and has thrown his hat into the ring with them, gaining 2 caps this autumn.   

Why, given it was his only shot at international rugby, did he wait this long?  EQP money.  His value as a squad player is greatly diminished if he represents Canada and loses his EQP status, so he missed out on the 2011 RWC and possibly dozens of caps.

We are seeing this more and more; Tiziano Pasquali turned down the chance to represent Emerging Italy as losing his EQP status at just 20 years old would damage his chances of progressing into Tigers First XV.

Every year we hear stories like Callum Sheedy or Rory Bartle turning down caps at lower levels that would tie them to a nation.  We also saw Ben Morgan turn down an England Saxons cap lest it harm his career, then in Wales with Llanelli.

Legally the EQP scheme may be on dodgy ground too. A ruling from April 2014 regarding Spanish basketball could spell the end of the EQP scheme.  To quote the ruling:

"The Spanish Basketball Federation (FEB) and the Spanish Association of Basketball Clubs (ACB) require that teams taking part in their competitions include a minimum number of locally trained players:
EU players who between 13 and 19 years old have been registered with a club member of the FEB for three seasons. Since this condition is more easily met by Spanish players, this is liable to put players from other Member States at a particular disadvantage.
EU law forbids indirect discrimination unless the measures pursue a legitimate objective, are appropriate and do not go beyond what is necessary to attain it."
And further it states:
"only the quotas for teams of 11 players in the Liga Endesa and Femenina (36% of total players) could be comparable in terms of restrictive effects to the Home Grown Player UEFA rule (32% of the posts in each team), for which the Commission has not raised objections so far. The quotas for the other competitions and/or configuration of teams, on the contrary, result in reserving for locally trained players between 40% and 88% of the jobs available in the basketball teams."
As with Spanish basketball the objectives of the scheme, to ensure the training and recruitment of young players and retain competitiveness of the national set up, are legitimate; but when Ireland and Wales both have fewer than 100 nationals playing weekly how can anyone argue that the EQP scheme does not go beyond what is necessary by being based on each club supplying 15 EQP each week or 180 total positions?  Especially when 14 was demeed acceptable just last year?

Professionals are often on contracts with appearance bonuses, whether that is per match or for hitting a certain percentage of matches in a season, or scoring bonuses; missing out on games through nationality means missing out on money.  It also affects the quality of the matches in question as sides artificially weaken themselves simply to fulfil the quota.

The EQP scheme was an idea born from good intentions and it is impossible to absolutely refute that it has stopped the percentage of English players dropping to football levels as we simply cannot know for certain what would have happened without it.  But given the harm we know it is doing to both individual's careers, the wider game and its potentially illegal status I think it is time to drop the "English Qualified Player" quota and instead focus on producing "England Quality Players".

Monday, 20 April 2015

English Qualified Players: What are they and why are we missing out?

Rugby loves on acronym.  RFU, ERC, IRB, though they now like to grandly  be called “World Rugby”, surely to be shortened to WR in no time.  PRL, EPS, EQP.  This article will focus on that last one.

“EQP”, people who live their lives arguing on the internet will be familiar with this one already, those of you with real lives in the real world need to have a word with yourself and reassess your priorities.  It means “England Qualified Player” and is according to some the only thing holding English rugby back from the Sodom & Gomorrah of English football and French rugby.

So what is an “EQP”?  Well it’s a bit of a Ronseal name, it does what it says on the tin, they are players qualified to play for England.  

That is not English players, just whether the RFU could call them up under current World Rugby rules.  So we have situations like Hendre Fourie, eligible to earn 8 caps for England but facing deportation once he retired, and Cameron Zeiss, born abroad to foreign parents he was raised in London, went to Millfield and represented Leeds and Esher yet before this season started he was released by Plymouth Albion because a season playing for Tarbes meant he was no longer an EQP.

So to be an EQP you need to:
  • Have not represented another nation’s test team, 7s team or “nominated next senior representative side” in a game against a test side or another nominated side, the nominated side for England, Ireland and Australia is the A side but Under 20s for Wales, South Africa and France.  And the final bit means U 20s players are only tied when they play against another country that also ties its players.
  • Be born in England.
  • Or have a parent born in England.
  • Or have a grandparent born in England.
  • Or have spent at least the last 36 months uninterrupted with your principle residence in England.

The last one meant that Chris Horsman qualified for Wales despite playing for Worcester as he lived in Monmouthshire whilst the grandparent rule was famously exploited by Thomas Waldrom.

So we can all agree it’s a bit of an odd arbitrary measure of Englishness.  It makes fresh off the boat Kiwis like our new signing Brendan O’Connor more English than Cameron Zeiss.

Why are EQPs so important?  As ever the reason is money.  In 2008 the RFU started paying out bonuses to clubs that met a target of 14 EQPs out of 22, 60% of the squad effectively.  This was mainly because of scaremongering that England’s fall from grace post 2003 had nothing to do with the difficult fact Harry Ellis wasn’t as good as Matt Dawson and Shaun Perry was barely fit, let alone fit enough to lace Kieran Bracken’s boots.  No, apparently this was the foreigners fault.

This season the payments are worth a reported £300k and the quota has increased to 15 out of 23, or 65%, and Tigers are currently off the pace averaging 14.47 EQPs across the Premiership so far, the only club to not be meeting our master’s target.

Is this a problem?  Well yes and no.  Its money so we want it, it’s the RFU’s money so we want it even more just so they can’t have it and every one of our rivals is likely to be getting it, but it’s not make or break money and getting into the play offs and winning rugby matches is far more important.

We met it last year and in 2013 when we won the title we averaged 71% or 16.33 EQPs per match day squad.  It’s also important to remember we are talking about 10 players across 19 matches.

Why aren’t we meeting it?  Well firstly it’s gone up by 5% so we are actually picking more EQP than in 2012 but now missing out.  Some people have blamed injuries to players such as Manu Tuilagi and Tom Youngs.  But this doesn’t bare scrutiny as Tom Youngs was replaced by Harry Thacker or Neil Briggs, also EQP, whist Manu’s injury has seen Vereniki Goneva move to the centre it has also opened up a wing spot taken by either Adam Thompstone or Miles Benjamin.

In fact were it not for injury to Logovi’i Mulipola would we have seen so much of Fraser Balmain?

One reason we are missing out is that we have replaced players like Boris Stankovich (EQP despite being born and raised in NZ) with Michele Rizzo, and Rob Hawkins with Leonardo Ghiraldini.  I use those positions because last year we had an EQP loosehead on 5 occasions to 1 this year and at hooker we had no non-EQP players at all last year.

At centre; last year we picked only EQPs in Allen, Flood, Smith and Bowden (again EQP despite being born and raised in NZ), this year we replaced Bowden with the Fijian Bai and with Allen injured we have used a non-EQP 12 on 12 occasions.  Is that down to injury or squad planning?

This also highlights a major problem with the EQP system.  There are English players as good as Rizzo, like Matt Mullan, or Bai but because of the EQP quota they are very valuable commanding above market rate wages and cannot always be fitted in under the salary cap, whilst there is just not an EQP hooker the quality of Ghiraldini available.

Tigers knew the rules though and if we are bothered about meeting our EQP target we cannot just shrug our shoulders and blame the injuries bogey man, our transfer policy has clearly had a bigger effect.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Kings of the North

Tigers have announced the games that will replace the LV Cup fixtures on Season Tickets for next year.  After Bath, Gloucester and Exeter announced a triangular West Country series mouths were watering that Tigers may be able to replicate that with derbies against Northampton and Wasps.  

Instead the club has arranged to play Newcastle and Sale.  Real pedigree fixtures to get the fans excited.  More than that they have titled this triangular tournament "Kings of the North", a nifty on-trend title nicely referencing both Game of Thrones and King Richard III, but unfortunately rather missing the fact that Leicester is not in the "north" of any thing.  Leicestershire perhaps, at a push.  

And that both these Kings were prematurely killed and not only defeated but their whole dynasty was routed.  Perhaps not the best title to contest?

It seems bizarre that given a free hand to arrange fixtures with any club that would have us we have sided with the two poorest clubs in the league, in both supporter numbers and financially, who we share little history and zero rivalry.  Neither club will bring many fans on the long trip down to Welford Road, neither side will entice many floating non-season ticket holding Tigers fans attentions away from the World Cup and surely TV companies will show no interest in broadcasting any of these matches.
I don't even care enough to Photoshop this image properly

For the traveling fan Kingston Park is the most remote trip in the league at 191 miles compared to 186 miles to Exeter's Sandy Park, Sale meanwhile is the fourth longest trip by driving time only beating Bath because of the lack of motorways to darkest North-East Somerset.  If these away games get moved to Friday night or Sunday it would be the icing on the cake.

So a decidedly dodgy name, unattractive fixtures unlikely to pack in the punters or attract a TV audience and extra-long away trips for our most dedicated away travelers.  I cannot think of a worse pair of clubs to arrange a triangular tournament with.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Hapless Tigers lose in London

Tigers slim hopes of a home play-off semi-final were extinguished in Barnet after one of the most woeful attacking performances ever seen from Tigers.  Tigers constipated attack could only muster 6 points, all generated from penalties inside the first 20 minutes.  Saracens only 6 days after their heroics in Paris managed three tries in a ten minute spell either side of half time to secure a 22-6 victory.

Tigers played the first half with the wind and built their 6 point cushion courtesy of two Saracens penalties; the first for a mid-field offside following Chris Ashton’s muffed catch, the second after a Tigers lineout steal.  Tigers ambition to pay with the ball was negligible and kicking game executed poorly with no real attempt to chase the kicks.  If these tactics are to be employed you have to question the absence of Blaine Scully. 

But with a tough defence and the wind at their backs giving good field position Tigers maintained their lead right to the stroke of half time, courtesy of two terrible misses from Bosch and then Alex Goode from easy kicks.

The tide was turning with Tigers failing to clear properly from Goode’s missed kick and Saracens countering deep into our 22.  Matt Smith was on hand to intercept a potential scoring pass but suddenly the whistle was blown and Tom Youngs yellow carded.  On the replay we see Ashton with an extravagant dive after a Youngs stuck an arm out to slow down his chase.  A very soft penalty and yellow card.

Tigers scrum, which had been so solid, suddenly was forced into reverse gear with a series of penalties conceded.  Eventually Billy Vunipola picked from the base and forced himself over the line.

Straight from the second half kick off Tigers were flustered.  Parling and Tait combining to fail to catch the simple kick off under minimal pressure.  With Saracens tail now up they returned the box kick and attacked quickly down the left.  With Alex Goode looking to have interfered with play just as much as Youngs Saracens scored down the left.

Saracens made much more of the wind at their backs, attacking with pace and dynamic rucking winning quick ball.  Gaining good ground attacking wide they found themselves with a 5m attacking scrum.  With Vunipola held up then stopped short they spun the ball wide to easily find a gap in 
Tigers porous defence, American winger Chris Wyles going in for the score.

With 30 minutes still to go and 2 tries down Tigers were still in with a shot of turning the game around but they were bereft of ideas.  We had two weeks build up to this game and yet we seemed to have no idea of what we were doing or how we were going to break down the opposition.

We flung the ball ever wider and backwards with Burns the chief culprit in failing to draw any defenders.  He was by no means alone, though any Tiger who ran at the Londoners certainly was.  It is a difficult thing to say but our forwards are either too lazy or too thick.  They don’t get to the rucks in sufficient numbers or early enough.  Therefore we rarely get quick ball, and should we fluke it are so bewildered by it we have to slow it down again.

Either the forwards cannot read the game to anticipate where they are needed or they are not fit enough to get there.  Equally the backs need to be better at generating ball when they have to enter the rucks.

In a shambolic display there was only one chance carved from a good 20 minutes of possession; creating a three on one on the right wing following powerful bursts by Pearce and other forwards Burns decided to go straight to Goneva on the wing, instead of going through the other players hands.  This allowed the defence to get to Goneva to make the covering tackle, instead of the Fijian having a simple walk in.  Goneva should possibly have finished it anyway but threw the pass to no one instead.

I don’t know if Aaron Mauger and his new arrivals will be the solution to our woes but I am now sure the current coaching staff and players are simply not up to it.  To have two weeks to prepare for the game and produce that is simply unacceptable.  To have one game where we are not at the races is one of those things but this is just the latest in a string of disastrous games Bath, Gloucester, Llanelli, Harlequins and Ulster away were all similar.  If the current coaches have the solution then why aren’t they implementing it?

With two weeks to lick our wounds I sincerely hope they spend it a little bit more productively than the last fortnight.  We have not scored 50 points since 2011’s home game against Treviso, I expect that to change against the hapless London Welsh.

Friday, 3 April 2015

The Transfer Merry Go Round

Cast your minds back to pre-season, all that hope, all that optimism.  We had Louis Deacon declaring that this was the best squad we'd had in his time at the club.  Well a certain game in September crushed that idea pretty quickly.

But this isn't a post about the season or the injuries we've suffered.  Its about this summers transfers, who has left, who is arriving and what else might change.

The inset graphic is the squad that we were looking at it August when Deacon made his infamous claim.  In red are those confirmed to have left the club, in yellow are those rumoured to be leaving.

Two players left before the season even kicked off.  Steve Mafi departed for Australia, for family reasons and an audacious attempt to re-qualify for Australia using the Olympics; Pablo Matera was injured on international duty with Argentina and had his contract offer withdrawn.

Several players have joined to beef up the squad.  Brad Thorn has arrived as injury cover, Jack Whetton & Greg Peterson two young Australasian locks arrived on trial, Jack Roberts has come in at centre whilst Tommy Bell joined from Jersey to cover full back and latterly fly half.

Thorn will likely be retiring in the summer by most accounts whilst neither Whetton or Peterson have particularly impressed in their very brief outings.

Those players confirmed as leaving are: Mafi and Matera as mentioned, Deacon retiring after a stellar and legendary career, Parling to Exeter, Price to Llanelli, Briggs to Sale, Gibson to Saints, Scully to Cardiff  and Tait to Bayonne.

Rumours have swirled around several other players.  Adam Thompstone has been linked to the Exeter Chiefs but that speculation has been squashed by the clubs propaganda arm, a.k.a. the Leicester Mercury, whilst Terrence Hepetema has been reported on website of questionable repute to be leaving for "more game time".  Scott Hamilton is said to be joining eternal rivals Coventry as a player-coach.

Julian Salvi's situation has been heavily commented on; Fissler in The Rugby Paper reported he terminated his contract a year early to cash in, the player told fans at a charity dinner pre-Christmas he wasn't even talking to other clubs, Cockerill told an open Fans Forum that there was a "best and final" offer on the table only for Salvi to tweet that he had thought this offer withdrawn but was now signing it and finally the club denied any and all of this!  Quite what the real story is they'll never tell us but its hard to think how anyone can come out looking particularly good from it.

The graphic highlights the two main areas of change in the squad this summer as the back five of the scrum and the back three.

We've lost 6 players in the back five of the scrum, with rumours circulating about the futures of two more, plus the trialists with unknown futures and Thorn who will leave in the summer.

In their place Tigers have announced 4 new signings so far.  Headlining them is London Welsh's wreaking ball number 8 Opeti Fonua allegedly weighing in at 150kg; that is 23 and a half stone in old money.  Fonua was terrific against Tigers in November and whilst the size of a baby elephant he has shown an ability to get over the ball and create turnovers too.

Strengthening the back row further is 25 year old Brendan O'Connor, currently playing openside for Auckland Blues in Super Rugby he is thought to be the replacement for the not yet gone Salvi and has Cockerill has compared him in style to Josh Kronfeld and he has been reported to beat Salvi on every stat the club measures.  O'Connor qualifies for England through a grandmother and harbours international ambitions.  

Replacing Deacon and Parling Tigers have signed two locks called Mike.  Mike Williams is a familiar figure in English rugby since joining Worcester.  The outsized Zimbabwean is similar in many ways to Slater, most comfortable at lock but with the awareness and speed to cover in the back row.  If there are any doubts about his tackling check out the video for a massive smash on Mulipola last season.

Mike Fitzgerald is a New Zealander coming from Waikato Cheifs where he has been an ever present in their line up so far this season.  Likened to Louis Deacon as a no nonsense worker he currently faces stiff competition in the Chiefs second row from Brodie Retallick, the All Black, and London Irish bound Matt Symons, brother of former Tiger Andy.

With the departures of Mafi, Matera & Gibson, possibly Barbieri too plus the rumoured pay as you play deal agreed with Tom Croft Tigers have plenty of cash to either make another signing or swallow their pride and re-sign Salvi.  

As it stands next season Tigers will have three burly number 8s to pick from in Crane, Pearce and Fonua but just two flankers and one of those will miss the start of the season with a dislocated shoulder.
Refreshing the back row is a priority; as much as Salvi, Crane and Gibson are admired as hard working durable players they are not Neil Back, Martin Corry, Dean Richards or Lewis Moody.  Croft sits comfortably with those great players but is so injury prone he has managed just 137 games in 10 seasons.

Clearly bodies are needed.  Rumours suggest Lachlan McCafferty of London Welsh has been looked at, a rangy and loose flanker I just cannot seem him being a worthwhile signing.  We would be better off trusting youngsters Ed Milne and Charlie Beckett than signing dross just to hold a tackle bag.

The other area of major change is the back three where Mat Tait is leaving after three seasons as first choice full back.  Also leaving is USA winger Blaine Scully who has quickly become a fan favourite for his full hearted displays after joining in the summer of 2013 as a 7s specialist.

Scully's situation is strange; Cockerill has been quoted saying we couldn't match Cardiff's offer.  Given the Welsh regions Salary Cap is some £3.5m compared to an English cap of £5m+ next season I'm not sure that passes my sniff test.  Clearly we can afford to match and beat Pro 12 teams offers if we want, but in this case we don't.

No in-comings are confirmed for the backs but Australian media has reported Peter Betham the twice capped Wallaby wing as joining. Betham is usually on the Waratahs bench behind Rob Horne and Fijian winger Taqele Naiyararovo, who Scotland are apparently targeting to naturalise for their international team, but has featured in 5 games this season scoring 2 tries.

Otherwise Tigers have been linked with all and sundry.  Kurtley Beale, Israel Dagg, Willie Le Roux have all been discussed with various degrees of seriousness.  Perhaps more realistic is a move for Chris Pennell, the ever loyal Worcester man can surely not stomach a second season in second division if they miss out on promotion this season.

Much like the back row the back three is an area we are not up to scratch at the moment.  Slimming the numbers but increasing the quality in this area is a solid idea from the club so I would expect only one signing in this area unless more players are to leave.

With all the known leavers and handful of arrivers, a further £500k increase in the salary cap and the second marquee signing spot I would be amazed and disappointed if our transfer activity ended without at least one more major signing.  The shape of the squad suggests a marquee full back but Tigers have often confounded expectations.

We thought we had our best ever squad in August, we clearly have not, can our signings give us the same optimism this summer?