Gallic Shrug

There was an air of inevitability about Munster’s five-try qualifying haul on Sunday.  Not even Munster’s most ardent supporters – heck, not even Frankie Sheahan – would claim there was anything miraculous about it, or hold it up against famous last-round wins against Sale or Gloucester.

Why?  Because we’ve become accustomed to the middle tier French rugby clubs capitulating in the latter rounds of the Cup.  When Racing gave up a generous lead at home to Saracens the week before, Leinster’s goose was more or less cooked.  For some – Leinster fans anyway – it resulted in a slightly unsatisfactory finale to the pool stages.  How much more exciting would it have been if Munster really had it put up to them, as Leinster did in Exeter?  That’s not to discredit Munster.  As discussed in Monday’s post, they had their destiny in their own hands and did what they had to do; they deserve their place in the last eight.

The question is, can anything be done to ensure sides remain competitive to the last?  Not really.  Sure, you could try to impose fines on teams for putting out weakened sides, but in the days of heavy squad rotation, how do you define first and second choice players?  On the face of it, it looks unworkable.

And besides, it’s more a question of attitude than names on a team sheet.  Rugby is a game where bodies are put on the line; if one side’s need is greater, they will generally prevail, even if they possess less quality.  As an example, Toulon put out a strong line-up for Saturday’s do-or-go-through-anyway game against Montpellier, but it was clear from the moment Freddie Michalak gave a Gallic shrug and allowed the Montpellier centre to canter over the line for their first try, that their hearts weren’t in it.  The best that could be achieved would be that if the French are to be given concessions as part of the much-discussed tournament restructure, that they are reminded of their responsibilities to uphold the credibility of the competition.

In defence of the French sides, that they were more consistently competitive this year than in any in recent memory.  Clermont and Toulouse will always treat the tournament with respect and Biarritz – although rubbish these days – have a tradition of giving it a go.  Toulon, with their mega-squad, have no excuse for not being competitive, and took advantage of an easy pool to amble through to a home quarter-final.  It was only Montpellier’s second season in the competition, and while their pool was straightforward, they showed terrific commitment throughout and clearly wanted to make a statement, and qualified deservedly.

The performances of Castres and Racing were also committed for the most part.  Castes are notorious for throwing matches on the road, but they won in Glasgow and kept Northampton tryless in Franklin’s Gardens, a result which effectively took the Saints out of the competition.  Racing also won in Scotland, beat Munster at home and looked suitably gutted at the end of their hard-fought defeat to Saracens.  It was only once they were ruled out that they couldn’t be bothered.

If one thing could be done to improve the tournament, it’s a change to the lopsided seeding system, which counts the previous four years of tournament points to determine each side’s place in the rankings.  Four years is too many, and allows the deadwood to hang around for too long.  Cardiff were a top seed this year, which seems farcical.  They were losing semi-finalists four years ago, when Martyn Williams missed a penalty in a shoot-out against Leicester, but not many of the names that played that day are still on their books.  While there is no points system that can account for a loss of players to other clubs, two years’ ranking points appears more appropriate, and if the ranking coefficient included an element of domestic league performance, then all the better.

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34 Comments

  1. I’d consider linking seeding directly to previous year’s competition.

    4 semifinalists plus two losing QFists with best pool performance make the top seeds. Then the 2nd seeds can be other 2 QFists, Amlin winner plus the next best 3 from pool phase. (yes, I know this means my Leinster wouldn’t go into the top pot for next season but you have to take off your club hat when discussing such things!)

    Obviously if teams don’t qualify for HCup everyone else can be bumped up the list, but it seems to be a better incentive to get the most out of your pool than a complicated ranking points procedure.

    You are absolutely right about the seeding as it stands – Cardiff being in the top bracket was a joke. I think winning the Amlin one year helped their cause.

  2. awm

     /  January 23, 2013

    Ah, but sure there would have to be a weighting against the Pro 12 if league performance was used, as its not a ‘proper’ league and all… Using league form for seeding is however a very good suggestion, as having both Clermont and Leinster in the same pool was farcical in terms of seeding, even if it was a broadcasters dream. It would also make matches to the end of the season for mid-table sides across Europe more meaningful, which would not be a bad thing!

  3. I think that the rankings should be similar to the Euro-Rugby rankings (http://www.eurorugby.com/index.php) which still manages to be relevant and has a good system of calculating the points. It also takes into account the League form and usually is spot on with regards to current form. It takes into account everything from points scored/conceded, home or away, strength of the opposition, strength of the league, the recent form of the team and the importance of the game and then uses the last 30 games the team has played to calculate their form. Simples!

    • I like the euro-rugby rankings index. Looks like a true reflection of the current standing of teams.

      • mikerob

         /  January 23, 2013

        If the ERC had used Eurotable rankings at the end of 11/12 to seed the HEC for 12/13, the tiers would have been:
        Tier 1
        Leinster
        Leicester
        Toulouse
        Clermont Auvergne
        Toulon
        Ospreys

        Tier 2
        Munster
        Biarritz
        Harlequins
        Saracens
        Glasgow Warriors
        Northampton

        Tier 3
        Montpellier
        Ulster
        Castres
        Scarlets
        Racing Metro
        Exeter

        Tier 4
        Cardiff Blues
        Edinburgh
        Sale Sharks
        Connacht
        Treviso
        Zebre

        So comparing the 8 actual quarter finalists with the ERC and Eurotable rankings, ERC got 3/8, Eurotable got 4/8.

        Eurotable was better predicting the worst 6 performing clubs getting 4/6 while ERC got 2/6.

        • Thanks for running that analysis mikerob. Be careful now, or we’ll come looking for a nerdish guest post from you.

      • mikerob

         /  January 23, 2013

        Nerdish post coming up… I looked at the 5 seasons since the current ERC rating system was devised and checked how good they were at predicting the 8 HEC Quarterfinalists. I then checked what Eurotable would have predicted, using the Eurotable rankings at the end of the preceding season.

        And the answer is… they were exactly the same.

        Both predicted 22 out of the 40 HEC qualifiers over this period, so a success rate of 55%, or marginally better than flipping a coin.

        In 2 years out of 5, ERC got one more correct than Eurotable, in 2 years Eurotable got one more correct than ERC and in one year they were the same.

        Of course, this is just using predictions of quarterfinalists as an assessment of the ranking system. This could be extended to predicting all results, but that gets a lot more complicated…

        • Thanks a million for taking the time to do this and putting the results up on the blog mikerob, it’s much appreciated.

          Interesting results! It appears that trying to forecast European rugby from one season to the next is borderline futile. That is an outcome I would not have expected.

    • Never seen that but it looks very accurate. Does it use a similar system to IRB? I have read the brief description but its not clear how they do weightings. Very good though.

    • mikerob

       /  January 29, 2013

      Sorry for the delayed response on this WoC but to pick up on your point, “it appears that trying to forecast European rugby from one season to the next is borderline futile”.

      Right now, it appears that Eurotable is as good as ERC rankings when it comes to predicting HEC quarterfinalists. However the HEC groups aren’t based on Eurotable rankings, they are based on ERC rankings. It is impossible to say what the results would have been If the HEC groups had based on Eurotable rankings, but I would expect the Eurotable prediction rate to be better than ERC given it is already the same as ERC.

      It definitely appears that Eurotable is a better ranking system than ERC in that it would produce more predictable results, that is, a higher percentage of top seeds would qualify for the quarterfinals.

      If the ERC doesn’t want more predictable results, then they should go the whole hog and make the draw totally open as this would produce more groups of death and groups of dearth.

  4. Johnny

     /  January 23, 2013

    I’m happy with 4 years but really think it should be heavily weighted for more recent results and similarities weighting reduced for the 4 year old points.

    • mikerob

       /  January 23, 2013

      It would take a bit of number crunching but it is possible to test the effectiveness of different ranking systems by how good they are at predicting results.

      If one system is consistently better than another, then I can’t see why it shouldn’t be used.

  5. Tommy Kennedy

     /  January 23, 2013

    I didn’t see too many Leinster fans complaining about the seeding system when they got Bath, Glasgow and Montpellier for their group. It is all apart of the competition. If you link to last seasons results it is too easy for French clubs with the big money to buy their way to the finals.

    • It’s not about Leinster fans, Tommy. It’s about making the tournament as good as it can be. Saying it’s all a prt of the competition is great and all, but what’s the point of having seeding at all if the process is rendered meaningless by churning out one group with Toulouse, Leicester and Ospreys, and another with Harlequins, Biarritz, Connacht and Zebre? They changed the seeding process when the old method was deemed to be flawed. It’s something that they should look at again – assuming we have a Heineken Cup at all after next season.

      • Tommy Kennedy

         /  January 23, 2013

        The problem is some teams have to qualify and others don’t. Munster/Leinster/Ulster season depends on those six games. They are under serious pressure to win and qualify. Like Munster in 09/10 final game of the group they were already knocked out but they badly needed to win to boast moral. Named a full strength team and played with passion. Difference for French teams is once they are knocked out there focus is on qualifying for the tournament next season or making the play offs etc. The league for Irish teams is know where near as important and that a long with not having to qualify makes the six games even if qualified or knocked very important where as in France not so much.

    • mikerob

       /  January 23, 2013

      As I said previously, with a bit of time, you can assess any ranking system by how effective it is at predicting results. No system will come close to 100% but if an alternative system is better than the current ERC system, then why shouldn’t it be used?

      The alternative is to have a totally open draw and accept that it is more likely to product groups of death or dearth.

      A consequence of the current system and draw is that some teams are far more likely to draw certain teams than others. So even though they were both first seeds in 12/13, Biarritz were far more likely to draw an Italian team than Leinster (and that is based upon the probability of the draw, not fat Serge pulling his weight!)

  6. It’s incredible that only one of the Tier 1 teams has made the quarter-finals (Munster) and that only in the last available spot.
    Seems to show that the legacy of good runs in the competition lasts too long and may be over-rewarded.

  7. Dave W

     /  January 23, 2013

    @Mikerob

    Comparing the Eurotable with the ERC isn’t really all that accurate though, because the Eurotable (at the moment) has already taken into account the results in the Heineken Cup from the last two rounds. So, unless my thinking is totally arseways, it would automatically be more accurate than the ERC in the vast majority of circumstances.

    I completely agree though, that the Eurotable does seem to be a lot more representative than the seedings in their current form.

    • mikerob

       /  January 23, 2013

      I took the Eurotable as it was at the end of the 11/12 season as that is when ERC seeding for 12/13 would need to be done (the Eurotable website has an archive)

  8. solidalarry

     /  January 23, 2013

    Personally I think the HEC format is fine. And I say this as an Ulster fan after two years of tough groups (we got Tigers and Clermont last year, remember). You have to accept the draw.

    I also think it’s really overstating the case to say that RM weren’t bothered at the weekend. They played 75 minutes with 14 men. If by “heart not in it” you mean they looked like they wanted the game to end asap then I agree, they probably did, but it would have been very easy – if they truly didn’t care – to hide behind the red card and concede a sack of scores.

    As for teams resting players, etc. I think all coaches do what they think is the best for their team and their club. No-one should ask them to do anything else.

    • paddy

       /  January 23, 2013

      I don’t think it was the ranking system that did Leinster in (and it wasn’t Clermont that knocked us out either) but I disagree about the ranking system. How did Connacht end up in the same group as Zebre? They’ve been the sub floor and foundations of the Rabo for ages.

      This skews the rankings at the top as well as at the bottom. Quins look great and Connacht(they have come on but not by that much IMO) look better too. And Edinburgh showed this season that league form is a good indicator of where you are.They’re ususally a solid mid table sidebut were terrible last year in the Rabo and carried that form into this season in both competitions. I think league/union form should come into it. I.e Where you finished in the Rabo or whose the best & worst of the teams in your Union should be a factor. This would benifit both competitions.

      Agree about the rotation thing. You need a squad that can at least carry the loss of 2 or 3 frontliners and still go out and win. So you have to try players out at the top from time top time.

      BTW nice piece on the Haskell Diaries re the Irish Team anouncement
      https://artofdomination.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/declan-also-rises-an-urgent-official-news-dispatch-from-the-land-of-miracles-and-shitty-luck/

      • solidalarry

         /  January 24, 2013

        Cheers! I had no idea that it had readers – best analysis on the internet, said no-one.

      • Abitofshoepie

         /  January 24, 2013

        Great take on the Irish squad announcement, funny but depressingly true. It would have been easier to announce which Irish players did not get sent to Carlton House this week. Madigan is going to be busy carrying all those water bottles..

  9. Broff

     /  January 23, 2013

    Fair enough point from solidalarry

  10. Good post and thanks for addressing. I did a lot of moaning about Toulon’s no-show (which is what really was the final nail in Leinster’s coffin) but there is not much you can do about it in reality. Irish sides wouldn’t do the same in the same circumstances because there is a bit more pride and respect for the Heineken Cup, which only exacerbates frustrations with the Top14 negotiating position for the future. You can’t introduce fines but maybe if every match counted for rankings (as in the Eurotable rankings), it would give a greater incentive to show up.

    The seeding system is truly an odd beast. The fact that it takes no account of domestic leagues is for me a big flaw. A team could win its domestic league but be in the bottom tier if they have no European history (as was almost the case for Montpellier 2 years back). Whereas Leinster could lose every match from now until September and will still be number one seed next year! As someone pointed out above, the lower end of the draw is also skewed. And then there is the Serge Blanco factor – and Biarritz always getting ‘easy’ teams. Some combination of factoring in all European results and taking account of domestic leagues would certainly be more equitable.

    • mikerob

       /  January 24, 2013

      The way the ERC draw is done, there is a very high probability of a French 1st tier team getting an Italian side. The 4th tier generally has a number of French teams with limited European track record (Castres, Racing, Montpellier…) and the French top seeds can’t draw them. So that leaves the Italians and the occasional other AP or Pro12 team like Exeter or Connacht and a two thirds or better chance that the French 1st tier team will draw an Italian.

      • Yossarian

         /  January 24, 2013

        as someone already pointed out it really comes down to how much you need/want it.Munster lost a final group game in Thomond to Leicster-you could never question Munsters commitment to the Heineken Cup but on the day Munster were already through,Leicster needed the win to stay in the competition and duly did so. The French have been better this year but i knew Leinster were done once Saracens beat Racing the week before.I would worry we would have more no shows if we had more French teams in the Cup. As weak as the Italian teams are they always give 100% and if Treviso had been going to Thomond instead of Racing i would have been more hopeful for Leinster.

      • Certainly Treviso. They don’t roll over. Sadly Zebre have lived up to expectations. I give the Parma-based franchise one more year: Aironi worked far better in every sense (rugby, support-base, attendance). Zebre are getting less than 1,000 at Heineken Cup games according to people I know there (they report higher attendances but it is not true). Sad stuff.

  11. I’m not in any way opposed to the reformation of the seeding system for the Heineken Cup (But please can we look at the RWC draw first?) but, and trying to avoid sounding blasé here, is there not an element of “the luck of the draw” here? The nature of sport is that even Michael Phelps et al can be beaten, and the nature of a tournament format like the HCup is that it’s about cumulative effort rather than one-off performances.

    With that in mind, no I don’t begrudge Connacht getting Zebre in their group. They got Toulouse last year. And surely in the interest of growth of the competition it’s beneficial that smaller team might win some pool games if drawn with other smaller teams? Or do we want them to be the perpetual whipping boys only capable of the occasional dragon-slaying victory? surely it’s beneficial in the long-term for both smaller clubs and the tournament as a whole?

    Also, part of the reason we’re looking at this is that the champions are out at the group stages. As mentioned before Leinster have my commiserations but they didn’t go out purely because of the disinterest of French teams. They put themselves in a bad position with performances against Exeter & Scarlets. And isn’t that the heart-breaking beauty of the Heineken Cup? That it all counts and less-fancied teams and can play with the big boys & put the cat among the pigeons. Again I’m not opposed to reform but I’m not looking to through the baby out with the bath water either.

  12. Also what do people think about the draw rather than seeding for the semis. A good point is raised by Planet Rugby here http://www.planetrugby.com/story/0,25883,16017_8422808,00.html

    • It would seem fairer than a draw, but, on the other hand, Quins had a simple pool – it puts even more stock in getting a good draw and exacerbates inequities at the pool stage.

  13. Abitofshoepie

     /  January 24, 2013

    Basing the knock-out stage draws on pool points has always been a funny one. On one hand it should encourage early group winners to keep playing in the last game, but on the other hand a teams chances of winning the competition can be greatly improved simply by having Zebre in their group! The more fundamental issue seems to be who plays in the competition in the first place, the French and English have a point when they complain that the rock bottom club in the Rabo can be deemed good enough to be automatically entered in europes elite competition. I think if that issue is fixed, combined with rankings beidng more current (unbelievable that Cardiff were a top seed) then the groups become more even and the last round of games should in theory have greater significance for all.

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