Thursday 17 October 2019

Neil Francis: Morally and ethically, the Pro 12 teams need Leinster to beat Bath

Eoin Reddan in action during squad training
Eoin Reddan in action during squad training
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Meritocracy - that was the buzz word this time last year. In our game it was a sort of Rugby Darwinism. The principal of who gets to eat first at the top table. Any European competition would need to be borne on the basis of those most deserving and those who had consistently demonstrated achievement in competition and had their competency and ability tested by the quality of the company that they keep.

There was a catch though. Some people's competitions were more worthy than others - some people's competitions had things like relegation and promotion - whereas others didn't. Some people's competition had some crap teams in them and the standard bearers could field weakened teams to play the bottom feeders. Those standard bearers could rest their best players and keep them fresh for the really big competitions. They could do this because they knew that they would never get relegated and they were guaranteed their place at the trough in the big competition.

According to the Highwaymen it was neither prudent nor smart player management - it was cheating and all of Munster's and Leinster's Heineken Cup victories don't count because squad rotation in a competition where there is no relegation somehow gives the bigger stronger better resourced teams in the Pro 12 a distinct advantage.

An advantage over teams like Clermont, Toulon, Toulouse, Leicester, Saracens or Northampton who could pick two XV's of near international quality for nearly every game, yet their squad rotation is somehow different when teams like Leinster or Munster do exactly the same.

The hijacking hegemony never really looked at the bottom of their own divisions to question whether it was London Welsh or Rotherham or Montauban or Albi who would be coming up or going down because they were never going to be a threat to established order. None of the big guys were going down. Relegation is a fallacy.

In fact when the Newcastle Falcons were relegated in 2012 the RFU and its elite members did everything in their power to stop Newcastle going down and London Welsh coming up. After an unseemly legal wrangle the exiles took their place in the elite but were relegated post haste. The yoyo kept spinning and they got back up this season but were relegated again last Saturday by Leinster's opponents - Bath.

Bath put out a weakened team against London Welsh and the bottom side lost their 15th match in 15 games. George Ford, Dave Attwood, Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph - England's stars in this year's Six Nations championship did not play. In fact I was struggling to find anyone I knew in the Bath team that was a regular.

Surely Bruce Craig Bath's multi-millionaire owner and aide-de camp to Mark McCafferty would have been up in arms about this unfair advantage. Surely Bath would have been playing with the fear of a trap door under their very existence and that is why they had to play their best players all of the time. Why would they be resting nearly all their starters?

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Meritocracy? Hypocrisy features in the dealings of the PRL's actions and self-interest is high among this family's favourite children. They are unashamedly unrepentant and casually carry on as if the central plank for their revolution and subjugation of the ERC was just a buzz word - it was.

Now the PRL have tabled a motion which will do away with promotion and relegation. The proposal is to extend the Aviva Premiership to 14 teams and an increased fixture list. A tacit acknowledgement that the teams who were promoted were underfunded and poorly resourced and that these entities would barely survive one season in the top league and would go straight back down. None of the top teams ever played in fear of relegation and in truth the traditional top six never really had any trouble qualifying for Europe because the perennial mid table fodder were doing just enough to make sure they got their £4 million subvention from the RFU. It was always as you were. The intention to expand and ring fence stands against the principal of meritocracy.

Leinster's Jamie Heaslip, right, and Sean O'Brien in action during squad training
Leinster's Jamie Heaslip, right, and Sean O'Brien in action during squad training

We are to ponder the PRL's attitude of making it up as they go along as the next legal challenge comes from London Welsh Chairman Bledyn Phillips to the relevant court on the charge that the Aviva Premiership is "a closed shop of professional rugby".

Now that the PRL run rugby in England and have pointed the finger at the inadequacies of the Pro 12 - they are now going to change the rules and implement exactly what they were giving out about in the Pro 12.


The English media say nothing - in fact it doesn't register on their radar - the inequity and recklessness of the PRL and the only way this can be dealt with is on the rugby field. Our guys versus their guys on a field over 80 minutes and the good guys should wallop the bad guys - victory for fairness and equity and the put upon constituent members of the Pro12 - but I fear that it might not be as simple as that.

Leinster moaned last week that they could not play their international heavyweights. Five Test matches in seven weeks isn't afternoon tea at the Shelbourne. The emotional and spiritual drain and the physical spend is unquantifiable.

Even the three-day lead up to a test match is grating on the nerves. A week off - a night or two of celebration maybe? They did after all win the RBS Six Nations championship ... again. The national coach was dead right - and what he says goes "I am the way, the truth and the life - no one comes to God except through Joe."

We must remember that Ireland have played controlled, mistake-free, intelligent, pre-determined championship winning rugby and that 13 of the 23 squad are Leinster players. The squad that they left behind have run a thin line between mental readiness and calamity. Leinster have won only one of their last five games and are one of the few sides that managed to secure their obligatory bonus point at home against Zebre with the last play of the game. They have shipped 62 points so far this season against their friends from Munster and have at times played like Philippe Saint Andre was brought in as their special consultant.

If Joe Schmidt was in charge we would be already gearing up for a real crack at Toulon away from home with a genuine chance of beating them. Schmidt is not in charge and Leinster with or without the chance to infuse their internationals back into the side will struggle to see off a team that morally and ethically the Pro12 needs to see beat Bruce Craig's team.

In a World Cup year if I was a fringe international player who didn't make the 23-man international squad I would be as alarmed as I would be frustrated playing bad rugby for an underperforming team. It will be interesting to note how the on-fire 13 internationals play this Saturday. They were all sharp and fully focused on international duty - it really is a case of adding 10 Leinster players to an international panel and trusting them to perform.

If Leinster play really well - it doesn't matter what Bath do. The English side are dangerous but have many weaknesses - they can though play and contest at a high pitch in a pacy game. If Leinster don't perform or execute and the evidence and form is that they haven't- all season - then they are there for the taking.

The key determinant and destiny of this team lies at the feet of the man whose name I have not mentioned once in this article. The coach lives or dies on the result of this game.

Read more: 'Sometimes in life you have to take a little bit of a risk' - David Humphreys

Read more: Brian O'Driscoll: Unrealistic Leinster fans expect too much

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