Get Back To Us After Round Five

Amid the turbulent birth of the new tournament, much has been made of the supposedly more competitive pools the new 20-team format has thrown up. As has become customary, it’s an argument that’s only half-true, and one which supporters of Bruce Craig and his chums are keen to stretch to its limits.

On the face of it, there is certainly at least some truth to it. Missing in action, in effect, are Edinburgh, Zebre, Connacht and Cardiff, none of whom are exactly heavyweights who would have much expectations of making the knockout stages.

But a closer look at last year’s results reveals that all bar the hapless Zebre made a significant splash in the competition.

  • Cardiff finished second in their pool with three wins, including being the only team to beat Toulon in the competition
  • Edinburgh managed three wins too, a big one at home to Munster and even a rare win on the road, against Gloucester
  • Connacht also managed three wins, including one of the most remarkable results in the history of the competition, away to Toulouse – admittedly the other two wins were against the Zebras, and they got fed a brutal 58-burger by Globo Gym. But they still beat Toulouse away!

Indeed, the worst performers in the competition, outside of the Italians, were a surprisingly useless Ospreys, Perpignan, who went on to be relegated from the Top 14, and Racing Metro, all of whom could muster just one win each. Ospreys and Racing Metro are back this year (and to be fair, are expected to do much better this time around – helped by being in the same pool as Treviso!) while Perpignan have been replaced, in effect, by Wasps, who won the playoff to be the 20th team.

The truth of the matter is that the pool stages have not been as exciting in the last three years, with most pools more or less decided going into round six, and relatively little at stake in the final week; even the running order of the top eight seemed largely pre-ordained. We wrote a piece about this back in January. In fact, the pools were so easy to predict, even we could get seven quarter-finalists right in our preview for last year, and don’t really expect a mid-tier team to make a run from the pack this time around either.

So will the pools be more competitive this year? Squeezing the talent from six pools into five should have an impact, but it is up to the middle-tier teams to show that they can take enough points to put the top seeds under pressure. In the article linked above we noted that the lack of round six hoopla was not so much down to the likes of Zebre being completely useless, but the fact that the second-tier teams haven’t been good enough to put pressure on the top dogs by accumulating enough points over the full six weeks.  The ‘more competitive’ argument appears to make a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes a pool competitive: it’s how closely matched the top two or three teams in the pool are, not how far off the next rung the fourth team is.

Last year, Gloucester were a hopelessly inadequate opponent for Munster, while Harlequins and Montpellier took an almost laissez-faire approach to the tournament. Northampton had their day in the Palindrome, but were too hot-and-cold over six rounds. Toulon, Toulouse, Leinster and Clermont breezed through their groups without great pressure from beneath. Munster and Toulon could even afford to throw in ridiculous defeats and still qualify with a round to spare. This year, it is up to the likes of Harlequins, Wasps, Bath, Montpellier, Racing Metro and Sale Sharks to show that they are genuinely more competitive and can make the likes of Gerry Thornley, and ourselves, eat our words.

The proof of the pudding will of course be in the eating and after round five, we will return to assess just how much is at stake in the final round, and judge accordingly. Having four less teams does mean one thing – genuine knock-out rugby starts early – by our reckoning last year, once Ulster beat Montpellier away (14th December), the eight quarter finalists were essentially decided. This time around, we’d be stunned if Clermont-Saracens and Ulster-Leicester aren’t relevant in the last round- and the fixtures on the first day already feel must-not-lose for the Tigers and Sarries. And if Munster’s pool is decided by any greater margins than a post-41,000-phase-86th-minute-bonus-point try against Sale, set against the backdrop of a weeping RTE commentary team, we will be disappointed.

Whatever about more competitive pools, one thing that certainly hasn’t changed is the wildly unbalanced nature of the pools.  Pools 1 and 3 are crammed full of talent and the rest are decidedly bantam-weight by comparison.  The newly domestic-based seeding system, based on one year’s domestic results, where Glasgow found themselves in the top pot and Toulouse in the bottom one, is undoubtedly responsible.  The short-term nature of the seeding is the polar opposite of the generously long-term nature of the previous system, whereby Biarritz maintained a perma top seed status (right from the first ranking-driven draw in 2008-09) due to a couple of finals and being drawn with Aironi/Zebre every year – until they dropped out entirely because they were hopeless. We’re not clear on whether this seeding system will persist or whether the performances in the European competition will count towards the seedings of future tournaments.  Anyone?

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  1. Stevo

     /  October 16, 2014

    Eight from twenty is less competitive than eight from twenty four, no matter which way they spin it!

  2. I definitely think most of the pools are harder to judge, partly because some teams like Ospreys, Glasgow and Racing barely showed up with a whimper last season, but those teams and others (Bath, Wasps, Montpellier) are showing a fair bit more grit domestically this season.

    The only two pool winners I’d say you could call out with any degree of certainty at the minute would be Saints and Toulon. Going to go out on a limb and make a totally unscientific prediction for the last 8 without any regards for maths (apart from the fact that Treviso are going to get utterly stomped), because who wants to do work anyway?

    1. Saints
    2. Toulon
    3. Saracens
    4. Bath
    5. Leinster
    6. Ulster
    7. Clermont
    8. Racing

  3. krustie92

     /  October 16, 2014

    The change from 2 best runners up to three best runners up also reduces the level of competition for qualification. Can’t see how 3 from 5 will be an improvement in the excitement factor over 2 from 6.

  4. My feeling is that we’ll see more of the mid-ranked sides pushing for qualification spots. From England, Bath and Northampton both look capable of pushing hard in their pools (although I’m a little less sure about Bath after seeing how Wasps took them apart up front for a prolonged spell at the weekend). From the Pro12 both Glasgow and the Ospreys are completely unrated by the bookies (6/1 for the former to top their pool, 7/1 for the latter). Now obviously their European history isn’t great, but good sides make the breakthrough at some point, and either of those could this season, especially Ospreys, who have arguably the form half-back pairing in European rugby. I don’t think anyone really has the faintest notion if the mid-ranked French will bother turning up, but they certainly could. You’d imagine Racing will be keen on doing well and Montpellier might have some ambitions, but the loss of Trinh-Duc is huge for them.

    I’d be surprised if the pools were as pedestrian as the last couple of years, but even if they aren’t, it won’t be down to the new format, it’ll be down to the re-emergence of some dormant big clubs.

  5. Slightly off topic I think it’s a mistake that the winner of the challenge cup only gets into the play offs. Really devalues it & really solidifies that it’s a 2nd tier competition, which, coupled with cutting the teams back to 20, does very little to develop the game. But sure no-one really cares about that.

    • Agreed. Plus no-one will give a toss about the Vase .. what’s the point?

      • But who WOULDN’T want a cheap knockoff of the Superbowl trophy?!

        • My understanding was the vase winners don’t even get that chance. I thought it was an English/pro 12 eliminator ( toss of a coin for home advantage) with the winner playing a French team. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but it says a fair bit about the confusion out there that I don’t even know this. I’d consider myself pretty more up to speed than the average joe, but I really am not sure myself.

  6. Fire up those spreadsheets! This could become a statto’s delight…

    On the point about what “competitive” means.. it would be interesting people’s ideas on more precise definitions. Is it related to the spread or distribution of points within a pool?

    For example, in 11/12 the top 3 teams in pool 4 (Clermont, Ulster, Leicester, Aironi) were all W4 L2. Aironi was W0 L6. As comparison, in pool 5 in 13/14 (Ulster, Leicester, Montpellier, Treviso) Treviso were W 0 L 6 but the top 3 teams were W6 L0, W4 L2, W2 L4. Ignoring the Italians, 11/12 looks more competitive than 13/14 as 11/12 came down to BPs and points difference rather than Win / Loss.

    So as WoC suggests, maybe the 4th team should be excluded, then look at the standard deviation of points for the first 3 teams in the pool? A tighter distribution to the mean is a more competitive pool.

    There has been some work on defining what “competitive” means for football leagues. In all football leagues there is usually a very similar percentage of home wins, away wins and draws and you can approximate this by tossing a coin. Heads = home win. Tails = toss again. Heads = away win, tails = draw. So can simulate an entire season by randomly deciding the results of each game and you will end up with teams at the top, bottom and a bunch in the middle – a random distribution. Stattos then compared the actual distribution of points in leagues with a theoretical random distribution. In leagues with more equally matched teams (like lower division Scottish leagues without Rangers in them…) the distribution of points is closer to a random distribution than leagues with one or two dominant teams.

    • It’s a hard one to define. I’m not sure how rigorous one can be, and it’s hard to judge after the fact.

      Take the season before last: if you looked at the final denoument you’d see that Munster pipped Leinster to the last knockout place by a single try. A single try! Must have been a nail-biter! A miracle match finale at Thomond Park! But no, they knew they needed a bonus point over Racing Metro on the last day and it was a foregone conclusion that they would get it.

      • I think the competitiveness of a pool isn’t the same thing as who qualifies for the quarter final. After all, a competitive pool with 3 teams taking points off each other is more difficult to qualify from second place than a less competitive pool with 2 main contenders.

        So an overall measure of competitiveness could be based upon the “competitiveness factor” of each pool then average competitiveness for all of them.

        Don’t forget, if a pool being competitive really means more teams being evenly matched and the more evenly matched they are, the more it comes down to random events, the bounce of a ball, a few points here or there, to decide the winner.

        • paddyo

           /  October 16, 2014

          This is some really interesting statistical comparisons, but it kind of misses the point. The intention of changing from 24 to 20 to make it more competitive is pure horse manure. Whether or not you put the top 2, 4, 8, 16, 20, 24 or 32 teams into it, the competition will be competitive on some level and worth watching. It’s really about cutting out a few of the pro 12 teams from the pie and protecting the richer (particularly) English and French clubs though. The same thing will happen with the seedlings I’d imagine. It will be whatever system appears to protect.

          If fairness isn’t at the heart of a competition it is badly damaged and whatever the rights and wrongs of whether you think Cardiff, zebre, or Edinburgh (none of whom fought these changes sufficiently) should be there or not, these changes had nothing to do with fairness. Just money and protectionism for investments.

          • The changes made to the competition were entirely for political reasons. However, “it’s now more competitive” has been a justification trotted out by a number of cheerleaders for the new competition. I think where WoC and my musings were coming from was if “competitive” could be measured objectively to understand the impact of the changed format.

          • Indeed, there’s no question whatsoever about any of that. And the argument that the pools will be more competitive invariably comes from McCafftery’s cheerleaders in the press box.

  7. On the point about seedings and rankings, these have changed continually throughout the history of the competition and will continue to change again. As WoC has pointed out, the rankings have swung from one extreme, only considering European form, to another extreme, only considering domestic form. A better system would consider both.

    An example of a system that looked at both European and domestic form was but it now seems to be defunct and the rankings haven’t been updated for this season.

    You can measure the effectiveness of a ranking system by how good it is at predicting results. A while back, I compared what the ERC rankings predicted the 8 quarter finalists should be to Eurotable’s top 8 at the beginning of the competition, and Eurotable was as good at predicting the quarter finalists as ERC, even though the pools were based on ERC, not Eurotable. It is impossible to say what the results would have been if the pools had been based upon Eurotable, but it seems likely they would have been better than ERC at predicting the quarter finalists.

    I can see the ranking system changing again, and a system like Eurotable that takes into account both European and domestic form and also including weightings for different competitions, home wins versus away wins, relative strengths of teams and the like would be the best method.

  8. Cian Murphy

     /  October 16, 2014

    I’ve been doing some messing about with my stats model and it reckons the quarters will be:

    Toulon v Harlequins
    Leinster v Ospreys
    Saints v Sarries
    Clermont v Toulouse

    Definitely less optimistic than your predictions earlier in the week! It’s a bit more fuzzy than my league predictions though, because I don’t have much data on French teams to use. For example, I would probably switch Saracens and Clermont in that ranking. Leicester and Ulster are also really close in predicted points, so wouldn’t be surprising to see them in. It also doesn’t take into account the potential of a traditional European swing in form for Munster, but at the moment has them a v solid third. Will be writing a full post on Friday though.

  9. Ro

     /  October 16, 2014

    The seeding is a joke. Just look at the Munster group. In their rush to ditch anything to do with the previous HC these gobshites threw the baby out with the bath water. The seeding will change over time as the money clubs (English mainly) start winning again. They own the competition now so will change it at will. I fear for the Irish side this year mainly because we are playing crap and have a raft of injuries. Leinster will struggle in a group that could well see the ‘weaker’ team (when the draw was made) actually top the group. Quins and Castres, like Leinster aint goin well. Think Munster will struggle once injuries hit their first team, not much strength in debth and they in a dog of a pool. Ulster have the best chance, they are playing well and again, injuries permitting could go all the way to the final. Dark horses? Glasgow, if they bother and maybe Racing for the same reason!

    • Lop12

       /  October 17, 2014

      Wasps are a poor side as well, Leinster should walk through that pool even in current form.

      Joe Simpson and Andy Goode is not a half back partnership that should be troubling any decent side in Europe!

      • Yes, Wasps look like the sort of team that can only win if you give them an even break and allow them to play the game on their terms; they appear to have a deent bit of bosh up front and if they get any kind of quick ball they try to put it into the hands of their lathally quick flyers out wide. Surely if you can stop their carriers at source it’s game over?

        • D6W

           /  October 17, 2014

          But it was Munsters bosh up front that put paid to Leinster 2 weeks ago. It seems that the media both here and UK are assuming Leinster will canter through this game. But it is as if they expect the Leinster of 3 years ago to show up, not the current incarnation.

          I am deeply worried about this game, I hope we win, but I fear we will get a nasty comeuppance.

      • Cian Murphy

         /  October 17, 2014

        I thought they were really impressive against Bath last week. Some serious defending to keep them to 29-0 with twenty minutes to go and Bath didn’t seem to have any sort of Plan B until Wasps took the foot off the accelerator towards the end.

  10. Just like to say I recently came across this site and its absolutely class , Journalism is top class , miles ahead of the Indo or the times , excellent readers with respect for eachother and fine rugby intelligence , I know its off topic but what are peoples thoughts on this mcloskey at Ulster hes superb , love to see himself and henshaw in the centres for Ireland , I think outside Murray and sexton and with a back three of kearney bowe and zebo , Ireland could have a powerful athletic and extremely dangerous backline , would it just be too inexperienced to take to a world cup?

    • Thanks Rol Dusty, we really appreciate your comments. For thoughts on McCloskey check out out ‘Hipster Rugby Player’ piece. He ws not even on our radar at the start of the year, we must admit, but he has our attention now. Remarkable that Ulster now have three viable options they can pick at 12, and all offering something different.

      A few people have suggested he and Henshaw as a 12-13 possibility. It’s definitely athletic, maybe a little too close to Warrenball?

  11. I think it’s a reasonably safe assumption that MOCs continuing ridiculous selection policy has goosed Leinster’s chances this year. Putting Mads at 15 while you have an international fullback on the wing? Unless of course this is more petulant gamesmanship.

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