Gerry Thornley: Rugby at risk of losing fans if two-hour games become the norm

Next season will be interesting for Connacht after major revamp of coaching ticket

Connacht  head coach Andy Friend is very bullish about a squad which he believes can go to a new level. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Connacht head coach Andy Friend is very bullish about a squad which he believes can go to a new level. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

Rugby has major problems if last Friday’s game between Glasgow and Leinster in Scotstoun is any yardstick. Overlong games punctuated by regular recourse to video replays, with referees the single most influential performers on the pitch, are becoming more commonplace, especially in the Pro14. If games like last Friday’s become the norm, supporters will simply turn away from the game.

Thankfully, as much of the Premiership and Top 14 action over the weekend demonstrated, when it flows, when there’s less recourse to the TMOs and video replays, rugby can still be entertaining to watch. Despite the trialing of the captain’s challenge among other laws, even the Rainbow Cup has delivered some good rugby and plenty of drama, not least when the Irish provinces have gone toe to toe.

The main grievance with the captain’s challenge is not that it doesn’t have some merit, but that it further undermines the authority of referees while highlighting both the officials’ mistakes and how the TMO could be doing more to help the game flow by helping a referee’s decision-making without obliging him to watch a screen at the side of the pitch.

NFL-isation

Most of all though, it simply adds to yet more stoppages in play and referrals to video replays. And in the increasing NFL-isation of rugby, that is the very last thing the sport needs right now.

English officials may be a bit too in love with themselves and matey for the liking of some, but they do have good teamwork. They can be a bit pernickety too, witness Matthew Carling’s trigger-happy yellow-carding of James Lowe in the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final, but they seem to be more accurate and decisive, albeit we know things are bad when we’re saying they may be the best.

Alas, refereeing in the Pro14 has always been an issue and it seems to be worse than ever, with the once high standards set by the likes of Alain Rolland and Alan Lewis not the same nowadays.

In a general sense, between video referrals, stoppages for injuries and replacements, and re-set scrums, two-hour games are now becoming commonplace. Take out the half-time interval and allow for up to 40 minutes of playing time, that means players are standing around drinking out of water bottles more often than actually engaging in the sport.

Add in 5-3 or even 6-2 splits on the bench, and the constant breathers are also enabling the physically bigger and stronger players and teams to be more durable over 80 minutes.

Endless stoppages are certainly contributing to the increased frustration and anger among supporters, and perhaps for players on the pitch and on the sidelines. They have become more audible in the absence of crowds and perhaps empty stadia have also highlighted how constant appealing to referees and sledging of opponents. But the unseemly ruffling of an opponents’ hair after the concession of a penalty is an unwanted addition to the game.

To rugby’s great credit, the sport is just about to complete an entire season of club and international competition against all odds and without live supporters, which is quite an achievement, even if it has been increasingly taken for granted.

As Andy Friend pointed out after Connacht rounded off their season with a fine bonus-point win over the much-improved Ospreys, none of their three cancelled games were down to them. They haven’t had a team meeting or a social function in more than 12 months but, as he reflected with pride, stayed on task.

All in all, Connacht delivered on the pitch too. For the third season running they have qualified for the Heineken Champions Cup on merit, accumulating eight wins from 16 games in the Pro14 as against eight from a truncated 2019-20 campaign but picking up five points more to finish second in Conference B as against fourth the previous season.

Throw in three wins out of five in the Rainbow Cup, there was no disgrace in losing to Racing and Bristol in the Champions Cup, even if being overpowered by Leicester in the Challenge Cup was disappointing.

Ultimately, only their fellow Irish provinces finished above them in the Pro14 and in normal circumstances they’d have earned a home quarter-final. It’s worth remembering too that seven of their 21 domestic matches were against Leinster, Munster and Ulster, all of whom Connacht beat away from home. Furthermore, injuries and Irish demands restricted key men, the departing Quinn Roux and Bundee Aki, to just five and eight starts respectively.

Next season will be interesting, as Connacht’s coaching ticket will be the most radically revamped of any of the provinces. They are losing both Nigel Carolan and Jimmy Duffy, who had become part of the furniture at the Sportsground.

New challenges

Carolan is ending a virtually unbroken 26-year association with his native province as first a tidy left-winger and then a development officer before a 14-year stint in charge of their academy and latterly as backs coach for the last four seasons.

Duffy, another Galway born and bred former player, is ending an unbroken 13-year stint as a coach in the academy and latterly six seasons as Connacht’s forwards coach.

It’s somehow always a little more disappointing when indigenous, home-grown coaches move on, albeit their desire for new challenges is understandable. But no less than the phalanx of former Munster players now coaching abroad (Jerry Flannery, James Coughlan, Mike Prendergast and Ronan O’Gara), Duffy and Carolan will broaden their knowledge and experience before returning as better coaches one day.

Dewald Senekal looks like a well-qualified and experienced recruit as their new forwards coach while Mossy Lawler and Colm Tucker have been promoted from their positions as elite player development officers, with Lawler becoming the assistant attack and skills coach, and Tucker taking over defence and forwards technical skills coach.

Offsetting the departures of Duffy and Carolan, another Galway born and bred stalwart of the province, Andrew Browne, is to take up a role as an elite player development officer with the province, as will Mark Sexton.

Despite more than his fair share of injuries during his 11 seasons with Connacht, Browne played more than 150 games for his native province.

That Friend has signed on himself for another two years, making this the longest stint of his coaching career, is a statement in itself. He is very bullish about a squad which he believes can go to a new level. That raises the bar for next season.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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