rugby play offs

With some 4 weeks to go before the return of the Premiership, my feet are becoming distinctly restless and tele is just not interesting, so my thoughts have been alternating between the lows and highs of following Sale last year, The Lions Tour and what may, or may not, lie ahead in the new season.

Looking back at The Lions in that final Test, and Dave will recall this, I was annoyed at the flak Gatland took (as he clearly also was) about his team choice. Having watched Alun Wyn Jones over many seasons, and in the absence of the colossus, O’Connell, I felt that he was absolutely the right choice and, for me, his leadership style on the field is very similar to the Irishman. Also,after the 2nd Test, I would not have started O’Driscoll, although he would have made my bench – he looked out of sorts with himself and those around him in the previous match, and with the Wales v England 6-Nations hammering still fresh, who can truly criticise him for betting on what he knows – The Welsh Lions (with guest appearances by fringe nation players …..). I’m Scottish remember, and we didn’t get a look in. It’s good to beat the Aussies in any sport, at any time, particularly in their own backyard but, IT IS BEYOND SUBLIME TO HUMILIATE THEM, isn’t it?

On top of that, Andy won Wimbledon and the Aussies won’t be taking The Ashes back down under!!!!!!!!! Immense.

Back to The Lions, and I would apologise to the (presumably Irish) chap who picked me up on a pre-Tour remark I made where I was commenting on the exodus of British players to France without distinguishing British from Irish.

HOWEVER, I would take issue with a further comment directed at that piece in respect of the competition between different sports for the public’s support/cash specifically on The Emerald Isle. Sad old me has had a little look at last season’s stats for the Pro-12 and, average attendances for the four Regions are:-

  1. Ulster             10342
  2. Leinster         16902 (excluding the game against Munster at The Aviva)
  3. Munster        14196 (rising to 17850 if we exclude the 4 matches at Musgrave Park where attendance is ltd to c. 9250)
  4. Connacht        5239

With Ravenhill undergoing phased redevelopment until next year, capacity there is rising from 11400 to 18000, whilst development at The RDS Arena will see  capacity rise from 18000 to 23000. Thomond Park (27000) has rightly been voted (albeit mainly by Munster fans, but I have no issue with that) the ‘Best Stadium in the World’, but please spare a thought for Connacht, sharing the lease on The Galway Showground – capacity 7500, which can be increased with temporary seating to 9500 – with a pack of greyhounds. Unlike the other Irish teams who are running away over the horizon in terms of attendances and stadia development, Connacht are completely strangled.

The IRFU havn’t helped this by designating them a ‘Development Region’, for which read, half the budget doled out to the other 3. Suggestions that, to save the IRFU some dosh, they be allowed to go the way of the Caledonia Reds, Celtic Warriors and, more recently, The Border Reivers, have been vigorously opposed by loyal fans and the team has acquitted itself with some credit in recent times with some limited cup success and an 8th place finish in the Pro-12 last season. But with Ulster and Leinster finishing 1st and 2nd, the conclusions are fairly obvious.

Wouldn’t Glasgow and Edinburgh love even the attendances enjoyed by Connacht, never mind the others? Respectively, they averaged home crowds of 4541 and 4520 last season – Glasgow v Edinburgh attracted 6000 (new stadium), whilst the return fixture saw Murrayfield packed to a capacity of ……. 11225. Ouch.  Despite this and the potential new stadium syndrome (think Sale, last year), how on earth did Glasgow finish 3rd? They must have a flush sponsor base.  Compared to these figures, and the stats below for the Welsh Regions, I would argue that Irish Rugby is in extremely rude health and very much on a par with The AVIVA Premiership.

Glasgow will welcome the return of Chris Cussiter at scrum half after a near season-long injury layoff, and with the appointment of Alan Solomons, the highly regarded South African, as head coach, the arrival of Richie Vernon who is keen to re-establish his International credentials, and a squad including Hogg, Grant, Maitland, Harley, Jackson and Pyrgos, another strong season may lie in wait. Edinburgh, I just worry about.

Despite the success of The Welsh Lions the regional game is still at a dangerous crossroads. For one of the real heartlands of the game average home attendances remain poor. Last season looked like this:-

  1. Blues      10577 (8017 if we exclude the double header at the Millenium where both games were watched by the same crowd of 36174)
  2. Ospreys   9272
  3. Scarlets    7882
  4. Dragons    8217 (5421   —————// as above //———————

Lydiate and Roberts have joined the French tourists BUT, and a significant BUT, Faletau has extended his contract with The Dragons for another 2 years – what does he see happening there? The WRU have ‘generously’ given the regions an extra £1.0m of funding but, as Opspreys Chief Exec Adam Hore admitted, it could cost that just to keep Alun Wyn Jones, Adam Jones and Ian Evans, who are all out of contract at the end of this season, at the club – as is Warbs at The Blues, who was reported earlier this week as being in no hurry to enter contract extension discussions. Read what you will into that.

Harder times ahead perhaps for The Blues, who also have to contend with Cardiff City’s elevation to football’s elite. They only have to look an hour west to see the impact of Premiership football with The Swans selling out every home game and with plans now approved to extend The Liberty Stadium from 20500 to 33000.

And finally, to The Aviva. To be honest, with money talking, I can’t see much change amongst last years top 4. Quins certainly have some good youngsters pushing to come through and George North’s arrival at Saints may just give them that extra 1% to keep them bang on the pace with the leaders. P.s. Delighted that Cockers got what he deserved.

With 4 players now in the Elite set-up, including the very highly rated Matt Kvesic, I expect a stronger season from Gloucester after a slightly unsettled year last year, and I also expect more from Bath who look to have a solid squad and who may prove more consistent than last year. Exeter will probably have another strong mid-table season and will always trouble even the biggest names, and I think Wasps will be very close to them.

Then, it’s the usual suspects, although I have a sneaking feeling that The falcons may come fast out of the blocks despite losing their very reliable Mr Gopperth. With another season of bedding in a raft of new players, I don’t expect much from Sale (best that way, to avoid excessive disappointment), who I expect to compete strongly with Worcester and Irish for that treasured bottom spot.

On that point, a note to Sam Verralls who has contributed some excellent pieces to Dave’s blog – I want Sale and Worcester to stay up. It’s the closest thing we have to a local derby! Maybe we could all arrange to meet up and drown our mutual sorrows at Sixways for our next ‘local derby’?