Monday, 26 October 2015

Beware of Greeks bearing Gifts

Always beware of Greeks bearing gifts.  After England’s humiliating group stage exit there have been a lot of siren voices in the media, usually with a southern hemisphere or Celtic accent, laying the blame on the clubs; too many foreigners they say, you need central contracts they reckon.

Cardiff Blues chairman Peter Thomas has called for regional rugby and Agustin Pichot insists central contracts are the answer.  Jeff Probyn called again for regions in this weekend’s The Rugby Paper.  All very certain it seems.

When Italy joined the Celtic League to form the Pro 12 we heard similar things.  Then FIR president Giancarlo Dondi said "I am sure that the Magners League will bring benefits to all Italian rugby and will have a positive impact on the competitiveness of our national team”, the late Stuart Gallacher said “the Italians will be a force to be reckoned with in our league and it will make the league much more competitive”.  Nick Mallet, a former favourite for the England role and then Italian coach said “The top ten in Italy is just not at the required level to produce players for international rugby” and the move “helps the Six Nations”.  The BBC went as far as to call it “the biggest boost for Italian rugby since the national team's entry into the Six Nations in 2000.”

So after all those great rugby minds declared that the move would be a huge success and that it would revolutionise Italian rugby has it work? Have results improved at either a club or national level?

6N record excluding 2000&2001
In a word no.  As this revolution was all down to improving the national side let’s look there first.  Italy’s record in the 6 Nations shows no discernible improvement.  They entered the tournament in 2000 and since then the average score in their games has been a 14-32 defeat, in the old era of the Super 10 the average score was 15-33 and in the new era of the Pro 12 it is 13-29.  In the first two years of the 6 Nations Italy’s attack was the best it has ever been and their defence the worst, remove those two years, see graphic right, and the average scores are practically identical.

At a club level the story is even worse.  Whilst the national team has improved, even if only slightly, the clubs have gotten worse.  Super 10 sides in the old Heineken Cup lost on average 16-39, since the move to the Pro 12 that has become 12-36.  As the graphic left shows when taken to 2 decimal places the difference is practically non-existent.

How can this be? Italy have taken all the prescribed remedies, they’ve got central contracts, they’ve condensed their league to 2 regional sides, killing off domestic rugby in the process and there are barely any foreigners left playing in Italy, only 13 this weekend.

The problem is that all these are fiddling around the side.  Italy have not improved their player pool.  Yes they have good young players, our own Riccardo Brugnara and Tiziano Pasquali among them, but Italy has always produced good players it needs to produce more really top end ones capable of dominating internationally.  Sacking foreigners and killing domestic rugby hasn’t helped that.  And it won’t help in England either.

We must resist these siren voices drawing us to the rocks.  Hansen, Thomas and Pichot do not really care about England and Jeff Probyn’s agenda of destroying independent clubs has been clear for some time.  England rugby will only improve as the player pool and, crucially, coaching of the senior side improves.

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