Gerry Thornley: Pro14 balance is tipping further towards home teams

For years we cocked our collective snoots at the French and their 'rotating'

Edinburgh’s Richard Cockerill: he  rested some of his established international players for last Saturday’s visit to the RDS

Edinburgh’s Richard Cockerill: he rested some of his established international players for last Saturday’s visit to the RDS

 

Is the Pro14 becoming the new Top 14? For years we cocked our collective snoots at the way so many games in the French Championship were seemingly set up for the home sides, what with coaches targeting home wins and thus “rotating” their squads for away games. And as for referees, if they presided over an away win they’d want to leave the car engine running.

Last season the percentage of home wins in the Top 14 was 71.5 per cent, and this season’s eight away wins in the opening five rounds has led to a winning ratio for home teams of 75.75 per cent.

However, something similar seems to be afoot in the Guinness Pro14. Two seasons ago the ratio of home wins was 61 per cent, but this rose last season to 67.6 per cent, and while we’re still in the teething stages after just four rounds of the current campaign, last weekend was the second without a solitary away win.

Thus far, there have been 22 home wins, one draw and just five away wins, which equates to a winning ratio for home sides of 81.5 per cent.

Furthermore, both competitions contrast sharply with the Premiership in England, where this season’s percentage of home wins at 61 per cent replicates the average over the entire course of the 2017-18 campaign. Are Premiership teams endeavouring to put their best foot forward more regularly?

Even in these days of regular rotation, there’s always been a penchant for coaches to select “stronger” sides for home games, especially in the back-to-back derby rounds over the Christmas period – which have often seemed like the Top 14 in microcosm.

But this appears to be catching on more and more, and from the start of the season. After opening home wins over Edinburgh and the Cheetahs, the Ospreys head coach Allen Clarke made a dozen changes for the trip to Musgrave Park in round three, resting Alun Wyn Jones, George North, Dan Lydiate, Aled Davies, Owen Watkin, Bradley Davies, Dan Evans and captain Justin Tipuric.

Unbeaten

Munster, utterly dominant up front, won 49-13, whereupon Clarke restored all of the above for last Saturday’s 27-10 win over Benetton, their third win out of three this season at the Liberty Stadium, where they are now unbeaten in eight matches.

Bernard Jackman rested most of his apparent front-liners after the home win over the Kings in round two for the round-three trek to the RDS, copped a 52-10 beating, before the restrengthened Dragons overcame Zebre at Rodney Parade last Saturday.

Similarly, Richard Cockerill rested some of his established international players for last Saturday’s visit to the RDS, and afterwards freely admitted that he could have sent Edinburgh locked and fully loaded to Dublin and still come away empty-handed against the reigning European and Pro14 champions.

Of course, like all field sports and many individual ones too, there are reasons why it’s called “home advantage”. There’s the familiarity of the surrounds and the vocal backing of the home crowd. This not only inspires home players, but assuredly influences refereeing decisions as well, and nothing about the recourse to the TMO and video replays appears to have dimmed this tendency.

So many close games can come down to one decision, usually late on. One thinks of John Cooney’s late penalties to earn Ulster home wins over the Scarlets and Edinburgh. Think too of Leinster’s 15-13 defeat away to the Scarlets in round two when on the attack with the game’s final play and trailing 23-21. When Jordan Larmour was tackled to ground, Leigh Halfpenny latched over the ball, and Joe Tomane laboured to clear out the home full-back. Even so, when the Scottish referee Mike Adamson penalised Larmour for holding on, it was within four seconds of him going to ground, and by then the ball had been cleared out and at the feet of Luke McGrath. Four seconds! It’s a very swift recourse to the whistle, and especially in the circumstances.

Yellow cards 

Last month, a study on Pro14 referees, which was conducted by Patrick Massey, a director at Compecon – Competition Economics (Website: www.compecon.ie), and co-authors, was presented at the European Sports Economics Association conference in Liverpool University.

It showed that from 2003 to 2017 in the Pro14 and its previous guises home teams incurred 707 yellow cards to 1,244 by away sides, and 21 red cards to 41 by away sides. On average, away sides suffered yellow cards for far fewer penalties compared to home sides.

Penalty counts were only available in full for every game since the 2012-13 season, but over the course of the ensuing five seasons home teams incurred 7,097 penalties, at 8.6 per match, compared to 8,322, or 10.3 per match.  

None of that is particularly surprising.  Furthermore, in some respects the increasing preponderance of home wins is not all bad. Time was, less than two seasons ago, when Zebre were shopping 30, 40, 50 and even more points on a regular basis, but there they were recovering from 21-0 down after 11 minutes to beat Cardiff in round three to complete the biggest comeback win in the competition’s history.

Likewise, the winless Southern Kings blitzing into a 31-0 lead en route to overcoming previously unbeaten Glasgow Warriors by 38-28 last Saturday, and thus recording only their second win ever – it can only be good for the Pro14.

Such upsets underline there is increasing life and competitiveness down the table, and gives credence to Leo Cullen’s observation that Leinster have to be on their game every week.

But this would seem to be particularly so away from home as all the indications are that it’s getting harder on the road in the Pro14.

 gthornley@irishtimes.com 

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