Andy McGeady: No rest for weary Tier Two nations
Chance to level the playing field through fairer scheduling is being missed
Fiji’s winger Nemani Nadolo reacts after losing theopening match of the Rugby World Cup to England. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
Three-day breaks between games are far from ideal in rugby union. No time to rest, no time to heal. For that matter, no time for a concussed player to pass the six-day graduated return-to-play protocols.
Today three teams will play their second match of the World Cup, each facing a side on their first tournament run-out. Fully rested players against teams already bearing the aches and scars of rugby battle. Is this fair, and is World Rugby missing a chance to help level the playing field?
On Saturday evening, as the focus moved from Japan’s historic win against South Africa to the fact they would next face Scotland on just three days’ rest, World Rugby’s CEO Brett Gosper tweeted that Japan have the highest number of rest days of any team in the tournament. True, but maybe not the whole truth.
Former Samoan international Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu was featured on Radio New Zealand on Monday: “This time they’ve tried to spread out the rest period, so the argument that Brett Gosper put forth was that all the teams were relatively having the same amount of rest days. Which is true, to some degree.” But he was sceptical of World Rugby’s insistence that scheduling issues have improved from previous tournaments.
Total rest days can be misleading. Short breaks stretch a squad’s depth, and some teams are being more stretched than others. Let’s be clear: it is a good thing for tier-two sides to play weakened big guns. But for the reverse scenario to happen is deeply unfair.
France are one of those with a short turnaround but their second game is against Romania, while New Zealand have a three-day break heading into a game with Namibia. In contrast, Tonga (who have more rest days than New Zealand in theory) face Argentina and then the All Blacks with four days’ rest before each game.
Fiji, having played England on Friday, take on Australia in Cardiff today and there will be an Irish face in Michael Cheika’s coaching box hoping to take advantage. That face belongs to Wallabies rugby analyst Cathal Garvey.
Garvey is a Limerick man. He played for St Munchin’s, UL Bohemians and the Munster under age ranks, captaining future internationals Donnacha Ryan and Tomás O’Leary along the way. His playing career would end prematurely after a fractured neck but Garvey is happy enough with his lot.
After all, he knows people have had similar injuries and been far less lucky. “That’s when I think someone was trying to tell me something: take a step away from the field and look for something else to do,” he says.
Like so many of that Irish generation, he found himself in Australia, joining the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) as a business analyst in 2012. Two years later an opportunity arrived to apply himself to analysing ARU performance on the field rather than off it. “It was the perfect role for me, a dream job. It was something I had a good skill-set for,” said Garvey.
“I did a lot of data analysis in my other roles – really digging into data – and that’s been really beneficial for me when I start looking at trends in the game and looking at what teams are doing.
“With regards to opposition analysis, I’m able to really dive down. Sometimes you don’t find anything but other times you find a little gem.”
Garvey started the job in July 2014, working under then Wallaby coach Ewen McKenzie. That autumn, however, Cheika replaced McKenzie.
An analyst needs to know what the coach wants before he’s asked for it, and Garvey needed to adapt quickly to the new coach’s needs. The 2014 autumn Tests were well timed, allowing him a chance to work with the new coaching team for a sold five weeks.
His parents and siblings would travel to Cardiff to see the Wallabies beat Wales, followed by a loss to Ireland in Dublin. Loyalties split between family and nation. His elder brother wore a gold jacket that day on the promise of a free ticket. That was the deal, said Garvey.
After today, Australia will have their own short rest to overcome. They play Uruguay on Sunday at Villa Park. At least the Uruguayans will have had a full week, which for tier-two nations should be the default.
A schedule could surely be designed for the 2019 World Cup in Japan where every tier-one side faces one tough turnaround, while each tier-two side plays with at least six days’ rest every time.
The money men might not like the top sides playing more midweek games away from those prime weekend TV slots, but it would be one small scheduling step towards sporting fairness.