Challenge Cup 2019/20 Pools Overview

Challenge Cup 2019/20 Pools Overview

The pools for the 2019/20 Challenge Cup were announced on Wednesday and now teams can begin to plan for their campaigns. 20 teams are split into 5 pools, with each team playing the other 3 in their pool at home and away. Once the 6 rounds of pool matches are over, the pool winners and 3 best runners-up qualifying for the knock-out stages.

While the impact of the Rugby World Cup can’t be fully predicted yet, and the order of the fixtures currently remains unknown, predictions can be made over how each pool will play out as the teams aim to make it to the final in Marseille and a victory that could help them qualify for next year’s Champions Cup.

rugby Challenge Cup 2019-20 Pools

Pool 1

Castres, Worcester, Dragons, Enisei-STM

Let’s be honest, this looks like an easy group for Castres. Worcester will likely be fighting against relegation from the Premiership, the Dragons seem to struggle every year and Enisei are always going to struggle to compete in the competition until they get to play weekly against high-level opposition. If Worcester do choose to put in the effort with this competition, they do have the chance of winning home and away against Dragons and Enisei, which could give them a shot of a best runner-up spot.

Pool 2

Scarlets, Toulon, London Irish, Bayonne

If we don’t see 2 teams from this pool qualify for the knockouts, then I’ll be shocked! Bayonne and Irish are both here by virtue of being promoted into the Top 14 and Premiership respectively, so will likely focus on consolidating their league position. The Scarlets had a poor season but if they can get their squad back in fighting shape with no adverse effects from the World Cup, then I think they have every chance of topping the group given Toulon are losing a number of influential players. If Irish’s new stars can quickly gel and they put some effort into qualifying for the knockouts, then I think they have every chance of pushing Toulon down to 3rd.

Pool 3

Wasps, Edinburgh, Bordeaux, Agen

Given the strength of the Top 14, I can’t see Bordeaux or Agen putting too much stake in this competition given they both finished in the bottom 5 last season. Wasps has a poor season and have lost some stars this summer, but they have also brought in some quality replacements and will also have Jimmy Gopperth back from injury, while Lima Sopoaga will hopefully do better this year with a season of playing in the Premiership under his belt. Meanwhile, I expect further success from Edinburgh, provided the aftermath of the World Cup does not impact them too much. If these 2 play in the final week, it would not surprise me if the winner takes the pool.

Pool 4

Stade Francais, Bristol, Zebre, Brive

Like Bayonne, I don’t expect Brive to put any real focus into this competition as they will be looking to stay in the Top 14 following their recent promotion from Pro D2. Zebre showed some promise last season in the Pro 14, but I worry that they may struggle in the aftermath of the World Cup. Bristol and Stade Francais look the clear favourites in this group and if either of them can beat the other away from home, then I would expect to see them finish top.

Pool 5

Cardiff Blues, Leicester, Pau, Calvisano

Leicester had a torrid season but expect to see them improve this year and challenge for at least a best runner-up spot. Calvisano are a great example of the success Italy are beginning to have since Conor O’Shea came in to sort everything from the bottom up, but I think they will be lucky to get anything other than potential bonus points in this pool. Cardiff are on the up and have signed some dangerous wingers, but Gareth Anscombe will be a loss and they need to hope that Jarrod Evans continues to grow as he has been if they want to progress. Pau look to be the strongest in this pool, especially with Ben Smith, Luke Witelock and Dominiko Waqaniburotu joining, but I don’t expect Leicester and Cardiff to make it easy for them.

 

So, putting my neck on the line, I think the 8 semi-finalists will be:

Pool winners: Castres, Scarlets, Wasps, Stade Francais, Pau

Best runners-up: Edinburgh, Bristol, Toulon

Who do you think will make the knockouts? If you enjoyed this, you can also find my thoughts on the Champions Cup pools here.

Champions Cup 2019/20 Pools Overview

Champions Cup 2019/20 Pools Overview

The pools for the 2019/20 Champions Cup were announced on Wednesday and now teams can begin to plan for their campaigns. 20 teams are split into 5 pools, with each team playing the other 3 in their pool at home and away. Once the 6 rounds of pool matches are over, the pool winners and 3 best runners-up qualifying for the knock-out stages.

While the impact of the Rugby World Cup can’t be fully predicted yet, and the order of the fixtures currently remains unknown, predictions can be made over how each pool will play out as the teams aim to make it to the final in Marseille.

rugby Champions Cup 2019-20 Pools

Pool 1

Leinster, Lyon, Northampton, Benetton

Last season, Leinster had the challenge of emerging from a group that also contained soon-to-be Top 14 Champions Toulouse and did it with aplomb, qualifying with 5 wins and 25 points. This season it appears that things will be far simpler as I can’t imagine any teams here will be able to seriously compete against them over the pool stages, while their strength in depth means that they can also likely survive the impact of players returning from World Cup duty. Benetton did a great job to qualify on merit with the new qualification set-up, but I think that they will see qualification for the knockouts as a step too far this year, though I could see them potentially winning home matches against Lyon and Northampton. I’m not sure if either Northampton or Lyon will be able to separate themselves sufficiently enough to earn a best runner-up spot, but if one of them can win all 3 home games and at Benetton, they are putting themselves in a strong position.

Pool 2

Exeter, Glasgow, La Rochelle, Sale

Could this finally be the year that Exeter finally start living up to expectations in Europe? To me, there is a big drop off after the first 2 teams and I think that the matches between Exeter and Glasgow will decide the pool, while the loser has every chance of a best runner-up spot. That said, Sale and La Rochelle are not easy away matches and having to travel to one or both of them before they are mathematically eliminated could be a serious banana skin.

Pool 3

Clermont, Ulster, Harlequins, Bath

Clermont look the overwhelming favourites in this pool, but Ulster showed last year that they are a dangerous team and another season’s experience makes me confident that they can win their home games and pull off at least 1 victory away from home. Harlequins showed some good stuff in 2018/19, but I think that they may struggle to balance competing in the Premiership and this competition. Meanwhile Bath are an unknown prospect having moved on from Todd Blackadder as Director of Rugby, but I struggle to envision a club with a rookie DoR being competitive in this pool.

Pool 4

Saracens, Munster, Racing 92, Ospreys

Poor Ospreys! Wales’ only representative this season qualified by beating the Scarlets in a playoff, but it is hard to imagine them emerging with more than 2 home victories (and even that may be optimistic) from what is arguably the pool of death. It’s hard to imagine any of the other 3 losing away from home, but this could very much come down to how each team deals with the impact of the World Cup. Despite that, Sarries still have incredible depth and I expect them to come out with a victory, and Ospreys could prove crucial in determining who earns a best runner-up spot as a win at the Liberty Stadium will likely be a key component in separating Munster and Racing.

Pool 5

Toulouse, Gloucester, Connacht, Montpellier

Understandably the group that I was paying closest attention to during the announcement as it involved my beloved Gloucester Rugby. Toulouse will be the clear favourites in the group, but if they face Gloucester soon after the World Cup, then I think the Cherry & Whites have every chance of picking up a crucial win. I expect Toulouse to still earn to spot, but if Gloucester can win all their home games, I think that they can win in Ireland and if Montpellier is their final game, then a Gloucester victory is very possible if Montpellier are already out, which I think could be likely as I don’t think they will travel as well to Connacht.

 

So, putting my neck on the line, I think the 8 semi-finalists will be:

Pool winners: Leinster, Glasgow, Clermont, Saracens, Toulouse

Best runners-up: Exeter, Ulster, Munster

Who do you think will make the knockouts?

Eyes on the Ball Awards: Premiership Rugby 2018/19

Eyes on the Ball Awards: Premiership Rugby 2018/19

The Premiership is over for another season and it is time for club rugby to take a step back in favour of the international game. Congratulations to Exeter, whose dominance in the regular season saw them earn a playoff spot earlier than ever, also to Saracens who followed up their Champions Cup victory over Leinster with a victory over Exeter at Twickenham to complete the double. Commiserations to Newcastle as well, who finished the season bottom of the league and will drop down to the Championship, with London Irish taking their place.

But before thoughts can move fully onto the internationals and the upcoming Rugby World Cup, it is time to make my picks for the 3ʳᵈ annual Eyes on the Ball Awards: a set of awards slightly different to what you will see at official ceremonies. Let me know what your picks would be for each award.


Eyes on the Ball Awards:


Individual Awards

Best Breakthrough: Alex Dombrandt

This award is pretty clear in what it represents: a young player who can look back on the season as the year he broke out and earned the recognition of the wider public as opposed to just those in the know about their specific club.

Honourable mentions here must go to Harry Randall, who took his chances well stepping up from the Championship to the Premiership, Bath’s Ruaridh McConnochie and Rory Hutchinson and his fellow Northampton youngsters, who took their chances when injuries gave them the chance to play. Some people have called Tom Curry and Ollie Thorley breakthroughs this season, but I feel that they were already relatively widely established. Even if I had been considering them though, my pick would go to Harlequins’ Alex Dombrandt. The back rower only made his debut in November but went on to be a regular for Harlequins, with his physicality and underrated speed a hard combination for opposition defences, while he also finished the season 3ʳᵈ in the turnover charts with 19. He finished his season with a deserved start against the Barbarians and was arguably one of the best players in the game, so could find himself pushing for a spot in Eddie Jones’ World Cup squad.

Best Newcomer: Danny Cipriani

In both of the previous seasons that I have done the award, this has gone to someone new to the league, however this award is actually open to anyone new to their team, even if they have moved from another Premiership club. Such has been the case with this year’s winner, Danny Cipriani. Teammate Franco Mostert was also in the running, but international commitments meant that he did not feature until later in the season, whereas Cipriani’s golden wrists were making highlights from round 1. Johan Ackermann gave the keys to the squad to Cipriani and he took the club’s performance to a completely new level, firing them from 7ᵗʰ to 3ʳᵈ in the space of a year. Named Premiership Player of the Season and RPA Player of the Year, it’s crazy to think that he may not make England’s World Cup Squad.

Fond Farewell: Mathew Tait

The Fond Farewell award is for someone who is retiring at the end of the season after a career worthy of note.

This year, there were so many players that deserved a mention – James Haskell, George Smith, Marcelo Bosch and James Horwill amongst them – but this year I ended up going for Mathew Tait. Formerly of Newcastle and Sale, Tait has been at Leicester since the 2011/12 season, while his career has also seen him represent England in both 7s and 15s, becoming a runner-up in the 2006 Commonwealth Games and RWC2007. A highly talented and versatile player, injuries have interrupted his career far too often and it ended up that a failure to recover from a Achilles injury saw him announce his retirement in February.

I also want to take a moment to mention Wayne Barnes here, who will be retiring after the World Cup so has just refereed his final Premiership game with the final. In my opinion, he is currently the best referee in the world and will be greatly missed over the coming seasons. If England don’t make it to the final, then he should be finishing his career in charge of the biggest game of the year.

Bon Voyage: Santiago Cordero & Tom Savage

This award is similar to the last, but instead looks at players leaving the Premiership to continue their career in another league.

I could not pick between two players for this award, for vastly different reasons. Tom Savage has been such a big part of Gloucester since making his debut in the 2011/12 season and has been a loyal servant, including captaining the club for the 2013/14 season. He now moves to Japan to play for Suntory Sungoliath and I wish him the best of luck. The other player to earn this award is Exeter’s Santiago Cordero. Joning from Jaguares in February 2018, Cordero may not have spent anywhere near as much time in the league, but has been one of its stars. I remember him wowing crowds at the last World Cup and was very excited to see him enter the league. He did not have the best start at Exeter however, but I love that he then requested to play in the 2018 Premiership 7s tournament to help play himself back into form and he has been incredible this year. Had he not found himself out injured in the final weeks of the season, the trophy may now be on its way to Sandy Park rather than Allianz Park. Now as he heads off to Bordeaux due to Exeter being unable to keep him while remaining within the salary cap, the Premiership will be a less exciting place.

Cojones Award: James Lang

The Cojones award goes to someone who had the balls to do something at great risk.

I found this a hard one to think of this year, but a moment stuck in my memory from Harlequins’ final game of the regular season, away to Wasps. Down 27-25 and requiring a win to take the final playoff spot away from Northampton, Quins earned a penalty on halfway, though when the spot was given by the referee it was a few metres further back. Despite appearing to be limping slightly and having not kicked such a long distance all season, replacement James Lang took the tee and went for the three points with the final play of the game… only to see the ball drop just short – to the point that the ball may have gone over had the kick been from the spot of the offence! While the call may not have worked out in Harlequins’ favour, I love that Lang was willing to put the pressure on his shoulders and take the risk rather than try kicking towards the corner and trying to work another scoring opportunity.

Team Awards

Head-scratcher Award: The Matt O’Connor Debacle

This award is for a team decision that just left me wondering why it went how it did.

To me, nothing came close this year to matching the mess that was the start of Leicester Tigers’ season. Last season did not go well for them and saw them miss out on a playoff space for the first time in 13 years, while they never really looked deserving of a spot in the top 4. I personally felt that Tigers should have moved on from him over the summer, but they kept him in place only to move on after an embarrassing 40-6 opening round defeat, leaving Geordan Murphy to try (and fail) to pick up the pieces all season. This was such a poor season for Leicester and I can’t help think that sticking with O’Connor until the season started was a big part of that.

Biggest Disappointment: Newcastle Falcons

It was hard not picking Leicester here after narrowly avoiding relegation, but last season hinted towards issues and they had some awful luck with injuries to stars like Mat Tait and Telusa Veainu, while their England stars missed time due to international commitments.

While Newcastle also had their issues with injuries and internationals, I did not feel that it was to anywhere near the same degree and they in fact dropped more places than Leicester by going from 4ᵗʰ to last and being relegated with a match still to play. It’s a shame to see one of the few northern clubs drop out of the league and I hope they make an immediate return, but I feel they can have no argument about coming bottom.

Biggest Success: Gloucester Rugby

Exeter and Sarries obviously need a mention for their successes in the league and final respectively. I was very close to picking Bristol here after narrowly missing out on Champions Cup rugby in their first season back in the top flight, but in the end I couldn’t look away from my cherry and whites.

Despite clear signs of improvement last season, they still finished 7ᵗʰ with 56 points. This year, the addition of a few big names saw Gloucester finish safely in the top 3 with 68 points. All that despite injuries leaving the club with minimal options in the front row (full credit to Josh Hohneck and Fraser Balmain who had to play a ridiculous number of minutes this season), back row (Matt Banahan had to be the replacement lock in one Champions Cup match) and back 3 (Jake Polledri came on as a winger towards the end of the season) at different points in the season… something that could have ruined any team! Both as a Gloucester fan and also from a less biased perspective, I can’t wait to see how they do next season!

Premiership XV Challenge

Premiership XV Challenge

When it comes to rugby, I’m a sucker for a pick a XV challenge and watching the Premiership recently I decided to set myself a new challenge: picking a Premiership XV with no more than 1 player per nation. I did something similar a while back in picking a World XV, but at first I was nervous that I would be able to find players from enough different nationalities in the league. Going through all the squads though, my fears were easily quashed and I found myself also able to add in the caveat of not including an England player and still find myself leaving some nationalities out.

So without further ado, let’s look at the team:

  1. Val Rapava Ruskin: The Gloucester loosehead has had more than his fair share of injury issues, but when he is fit is a quality operator. A former Georgia U19 captain, he is one of the more mobile props in the league and is like an extra back row at the breakdown. He is yet to play at senior international level which does leave him eligible to play for England, but such is the depth at this position right now, I can’t see him playing for them anytime soon, so I couldn’t leave such a talented player off the list.
  2. Joe Taufete’e: The USA international may find his playing time at Worcester limited with Jack Singleton also on the roster, but he is a quality hooker. A strong runner, at just 26 years old, he already has the most international tries of any player in the tight five, with 20 tries from 22 matches.
  3. Vincent Koch: One of the few Premiership-based Springboks likely to feature in the World Cup, the Saracens tighthead combines reliable scrummaging with good ability in open play. At time of writing this, no prop has been selected by more players (28%) on the Rugby Magazine Premiership Fantasy Rugby game, 7th overall of any position.
  4. Andrei Ostrikov: Not many Russian rugby players have made it outside of their own domestic league at the moment but Ostrikov is one of the success stories. A regular for Sale since the 2013/14 season, he has to date made 146 appearances for the Sharks, scoring 7 tries.
  5. Chris Vui: A former Blues and Worcester player, Vui moved to Bristol ahead of the 2017/18 Championship season and made the league’s Team of the Season. Now playing for the Bears in the Premiership, he is a regular and reliable contributor in the second row. Vui become the youngest captain in World Rugby when he began skippering Samoa in 2017.
  6. Sam Skinner: Capable of playing at lock or in the back row, Skinner became the latest Exeter player to gain international honours when he made his Scotland debut in November, receiving the Man of the Match award in the same game. Injury severely limited his playing time in the Six Nations this year, but at 24 years old, he looks like he will be a regular fixture in the Scotland squad over the coming years.
  7. Thomas Young: The fact that he struggles to even make it into the Wales squad, let alone the 23, shows the quality the Welsh have in the back row at the moment. Things didn’t work out for him at Cardiff Blues or at Gloucester, but a move to Wasps (where dad Dai is Director of Rugby) for the 2014/15 season has seen him become a star. Dangerous in the loose, Young comes alive around the breakdown and is a turnover king.
  8. Renaldo Bothma: South African-born, Bothma qualified for Namibia through his mother and has gone on to be one of their star players. A highly physical back rower, Bothma has scored 8 tries in 17 Tests since making his debut against Kenya in June 2018.
  9. Nic White: With only Australia caps to his name, White’s decision to leave the Brumbies for Europe brought a premature end to his international career. Now at Exeter, he brings experience and a cultured kicking game to the Chiefs’ scrum half corps and has been known to rock some exquisite facial hair.
  10. Gareth Steenson: He made it onto my Uncapped XV and now he makes another list. Playing for Exeter has made him ineligible for Ireland but he is a quality player regardless. One of the most accurate kickers in the league, he controls the Exeter back line so well and makes sure his team are playing in the right areas of the pitch.
  11. Vereniki Goneva: He may be 35 now but you wouldn’t think it when you watch him play. A star at Leicester, the Fijian has carried on his form since moving to Newcastle. He may have lost a step of pace but has the footwork and experience to still cause the defence major issues.
  12. Jimmy Gopperth: Another player who makes it onto both this list and my Uncapped XV, the fact that Jimmy Gopperth has never played for the All Blacks shows the quality of players available to New Zealand. Things didn’t really work out for him with the Hurricanes or Blues in Super Rugby, but he has been a star in the Premiership, first for Newcastle then more recently Wasps. Equally dangerous at 10, he comes alive at 12 where he plays the second playmaker role with aplomb. Wasps have sorely missed him this season as he recovers from an ACL injury.
  13. Michele Campagnaro: One of Italy’s real stars in the back line. Injuries have really hampered his career but he has an undeniable talent. Stuck in a highly competitive Exeter back line, Campagnaro got his chance with a move to Wasps and next season will be calling the Stoop his home. Also able to play wing, he has good pace and elusiveness but also the strength to keep going through tackles.
  14. Santiago Cordero: Cordero on form is box office! The Argentine first came on my radar with his stunning performances in the 2015 World Cup, but his move to Exeter in 2018 has stopped him from featuring for the Pumas. Able to star on the wing or at fullback, his pace and footwork makes him a nightmare for opposition defences. A casualty of the salary cap, Sandy Park will miss him when he moves to Bordeaux this summer.
  15. Telusa Veainu: Another player who has missed the majority of the season through injury, Veainu is almost unstoppable when on form. A great counter-attacker, he has 22 tries in 52 appearances for the Tigers and 5 tries in 9 matches for Tonga. It’s crazy to think that despite great try-scoring records for Canterbury, Hawke’s Bay and Melbourne Rising, he only made 16 appearances (3 starts) in 5 seasons of Super Rugby.

Who would make your XV?

Major Change Incoming

Major Change Incoming

Big news came out of the USA today as Major League Rugby announced the format for the 2020 season, with new teams and a brand new format.

Season 3 of the USA’s professional league sees the total number of teams in the competition increased to 12, with 3 new expansion teams: the New England Free Jacks (Boston), Old Glory DC (Washington D.C.) and Rugby ATL (Atlanta).

The expansion has lead to a change in format, as the league splits into 2 conferences. The Western Conference will be home to Austin Elite Rugby, Houston Sabercats, Glendale Raptors, San Diego Legion, Seattle Seawolves and Utah Warriors. The Eastern Conference comprises the 3 new franchises along with NOLA Gold, Rugby United New York and Toronto Arrows.

Starting in mid-February, each team will play home and away against the other 5 teams in their conference and 6 games against teams in the other conference (3 home, 3 away). Once the regular season is over, the top 3 teams from each conference will enter the playoffs, where (like in the Pro14) 2ⁿᵈ and 3ʳᵈ will play each other with the winner taking on 1ˢᵗ to be declared the Conference Champion. June 28ᵗʰ will see the Conference Champions face off in the MLR Final.

First off, I’m really happy and excited to see the league continuing to grow and bring in more expansion teams. I really hope that rugby takes off in the USA and becomes its next big sport, so to see the MLR go from strength to strength after the way PRO Rugby fell apart is great to see. It’s also great to see the spread of the franchises over the country (and also spreading into Canada).

I’m not the biggest fan of a conference format but in the circumstance of such a new league that is still expanding and finding its feet, I think that this is a smart idea as it makes it easy to add new expansion teams without dramatically altering the league. I do however have some gripes with the timing of the competition as a February start means that some teams will still be struggling with cold weather for the first half of the season, while teams will also be losing players to their international teams during the Americas Rugby Championship.

Though I do have some issues, I am largely positive about how things are going in the league. The quality of rugby appears to be improving from what I have seen and having players of the calibre of Ben Foden out there will only be helping the league and USA rugby in general. With the next season starting after the World Cup, I will be interested to see if any players retire from international rugby and move over to give the MLR a go, which could push the league forward to the next level.

Suffice to say, I will be watching on with great interest.

He’s At It Again…

He’s At It Again…

Oh dear, here we go again…

Back in April last year, Waratahs and Australia star Israel Folau got himself in hot water for a comment on Instagram stating that God’s plan for homosexuals was

HELL… Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God

Fast forward a year and he is at it again. His first remarks were on Twitter, where he appeared critical of Tasmania no longer legally requiring gender to be included on birth certificates, with the following tweet:

The devil has blinded so many people in this world, REPENT and turn away from your evil ways. Turn to Jesus Christ who will set you free.

He then returned to Instagram to post a picture that said:

WARNING    Drunks   Homosexuals   Adulterers   Liars   Fornicators   Thieves   Atheists   Idolaters   HELL AWAITS YOU   REPENT!   ONLY JESUS SAVES

As I mentioned at the time of his previous comments, I have no problem with freedom of speech and while I don’t share his views I will not condemn him for having them. However as one of Australia’s star players and one of the biggest names in rugby, he is a role model for so many young fans and as a result should be much more responsible as to what he posts on his social media.

I have a couple of problems with these social media comments:

  • He makes these comments against homosexuals and hides behind his religion, however he has a number of tattoos, which appear to go against the bible (“Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you” – Leviticus 19:28)
  • If these comments were about people of colour rather than homosexuals, then there would be uproar and he would be punished instantly. Why should this be any different? Whether race or sexuality, discrimination is discrimination

Last time, the Rugby Australia chose not to punish him as he used his religion as a shield – conveniently he was nearing the end of his contract and had not yet committed to staying with the the Wallabies, so they were afraid to push him away. Following that incident, Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle said “There’s no doubt we’ve had conversations with Izzy about continuing to present his views in a respectful way. He is walking the line, we’ll continue the dialogue with him.”

Rugby Australia gave him the benefit of the doubt and now he has thrown that back in their faces with his latest comments. In a statement released earlier, they said:

Rugby Australia is aware of a post made by Israel Folau on his Instagram account this afternoon.

The content within the post is unacceptable. It does not represent the values of the sport and is disrespectful to members of the Rugby community.

The Rugby Australia integrity unit has been engaged on the matter tonight.

But how far will Rugby Australia go? In my opinion, he has had his chances and a significant ban is required – if not a ripping up of his contract. However, with the Wallabies in disarray and the World Cup just around the corner, will they be willing to make the big call or are they willing to risk losing face by trying to keep one of the sport’s biggest names available for the tournament?

Designing a League: Getting the Right Format

Designing a League: Getting the Right Format

If you are a regular reader, you may have noticed that I watch a lot of sport (probably more than is healthy) and in some cases – most notably rugby – follow a number of different domestic leagues within a sport. As a result of this, I have come to see that most sports leagues will follow one of 2 formats:

The first is what I would call a League Format, where every team will play home and away against every other team in the league, as seen in the Premier League, Top 14 and the Gallagher Premiership.

The second is what I would call a Conference Format, where the league is split into a number of conferences and teams play a schedule that does not feature matches against every opposition, these league will then have a playoff at the end to determine the champion. Leagues that follow this format would include the Pro14, Super Rugby and the NFL, which takes things even further by splitting its 2 16-team conferences into 4-team divisions.

Now, imagine you were able to create and organise a professional league of your own, what format would you pick?

League Format

The big draw of the league format is that it has a balanced schedule. Each team plays everybody else both home and away so – beyond the changes in form through a season – every team is on an even playing field by playing the same fixtures.

While this is great in principle, it does have its drawbacks. It is harder to have a large number of teams in a league of this format as for each team that is added, that is a further 2 matches that must be added to the schedule. Just look at the Premier League, which contains 20 teams and runs from August to May (there will be some international breaks, but there will also be some midweek games to make up for this).

Tying into the long season is the lack of a rest for players as this means that there is very little time between the end of one season and the beginning of the next preseason – something made even worse in rugby by the international Test matches being straight after the European seasons finish. This means that players get very little time to rest and recuperate away from the sport itself, and may lead to more frequent injuries if they are not recovering fully.

This format is also beneficial in a tiered league structure that includes promotion and relegation, as it is very clear from the standings which teams should go up or down as the balanced schedule makes it clear which teams have been strongest and weakest throughout the season.

This format also allows the league organisers to decide if they want any playoffs to determine the overall winner (as in the Gallagher Premiership) or name the team that tops the table as the winner (as in the Premier League).

Conference Format

The big benefit of this format is that as teams don’t have to play home and away against everybody else in the league, which allows for a much larger number of teams but also a shorter season (the NFL has 32 teams play up to a maximum of 20 matches over 22 weeks, 16 matches in 17 weeks if they don’t make the playoffs). This means that there is much more time for players to recover and recuperate between the end of the season and the beginning of the next preseason.

However, this shorter schedule may not be ideal as it will not be balanced. Teams may play home and away against some teams, but there will also be a number of teams that they will not play every season, leading to an unbalanced schedule where one team may play a higher proportion of weaker teams that some of the opponents they are directly competing against in the standings. Just take a moment to look at the Pro14 this season, where Conference B contains Leinster (10 wins, 1 loss at time of writing) but Conference A’s strongest team is Glasgow (8 wins, 3 losses). However, Conference A has 4 teams with more points than Conference B’s 3rd-placed team (Scarlets) and their spread of points (41-16 – 25 points) is less than in Conference B (49-12 – 37 points). Considering every team will have the same number of matches in the regular season, a stronger schedule will immediately put some teams at a disadvantage, so this type of format is not necessarily as fair.

Along with the strength of schedule, the teams that qualify for the playoffs will usually also be decided within each conference, so if we keep with the Pro14 example, Connacht are currently set to miss out on the playoffs as they are 4th in their Conference, despite having 2 points more than Scarlets, who would qualify for the playoffs as 3rd place in their Conference.

For the same reasons, promotion and relegation would be harder in this format as it would be harsh to relegate a team that had a point less if they have had a much harder schedule than the next team, so a playoff would likely be required for this. This also requires playoffs to establish a winner, unless teams were at the end of the season grouped into a combined table, but again this gives a benefit to a team with a weaker schedule.

My preference

For me, the balanced schedule is a huge draw and it makes the playing field fair, therefore if I was developing a new league, I would want to run a League Format however to avoid overly long seasons and too many games I would limit the league to probably no more than 10 teams and just increase the number of tiers in the sporting structure, with one or 2 teams being promoted and relegated each year, depending on the size of the league and the quality of the leagues below. I would personally not see the need to include a playoff at the end of the season, however if it was required – I can see the benefits both to the money coming in and the guarantee of when the title will be confirmed – then I would have no more than 4 teams competing in the playoffs, most likely just 3 in a smaller tournament.

So that would be my preference, but what tournament format do you prefer?