Pro14 controversy: is squad rotation bad for the league?

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Squad Rotation
Cardiff , United Kingdom - 31 August 2018; Dave Kearney of Leinster is tackled by Rhys Gill of Cardiff Blues during the Guinness PRO14 Round 1 match between Cardiff Blues and Leinster at the BT Cardiff Arms Park in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Three rounds into the 2018-19 Pro14 season and already there’s another controversy over squad rotation. In at least two games, fans and pundits have bemoaned the strength of the sides put out. Why do teams do it, what are the pros and cons, and is it really bad for the league? We take an in depth look at the controversial issue of squad rotation.

Background to this season’s squad rotation controversy

The opening match of the season, Cardiff Blues v Leinster, was billed as the meeting of the two European Champions. Blues’ squad featured 17 of the players who won the Challenge Cup in Bilbao, as well as a few new signings. However, Leinster had only seven of the players who took part in the Champions Cup final, and five of those were on the bench.

In Round 3, in another Welsh and Irish matchup, Ospreys made 12 changes to the team they sent to Munster. All their big names were “rested”. Among both the forwards and the backs, the lack of experience was obvious.

In both instances, the team announcements were met with concerns about the weakness of the lineups, with many claiming the practice of squad rotation devalues the league. Especially in the opening matches, critics argued, viewers want to see the star players. There were even suggestions that teams should be sanctioned for fielding deliberately weak lineups.

It has long been accepted in football that squad rotation is required to compete on two fronts: domestic leagues and European competitions. So why is it such an issue in rugby? This debate taps into a lot of rugby’s flashpoints: player welfare, the relationships between club and country, the promotion of the game, discrepancies in funding, competition between leagues, etc.

Pros and cons of squad rotation

PRO: Squad rotation improves strength in depth. If your star player pulls a hamstring warming up for a final, you want your back-up to have some experience under his belt. Leinster are a great example of this: most teams would struggle to cope without a player like Seán O’Brien in a European final. However, Dan Leavy had plenty of game time during the season because of Leinster’s squad rotation policy. When the final came, they managed without a player of O’Brien’s standing.

CON: One-sided games. Very few fans can have been in any doubt that Munster would convincingly beat Ospreys in Round 3. Even Munster fans would probably have preferred a more competitive game. They had a try bonus point by half-time and eventually ran up a 49-13 score. The Pro14 is a competition. That means the results of games need to be in doubt more often than not. Ospreys coach Allen Clarke defended his decision but it was tough to watch.

PRO: The chance to see exciting young talent. Fans who watched Jordan Larmour score a try on his debut for Leinster last season had some cause to be grateful for the squad rotation that handed him a start. Likewise, Caelan Doris made his first start for Leinster in that opening match against Blues. Doris is a much-hyped talent but he might not have got his chance for some time if Leinster never practiced squad rotation.

CON: The Pro14 is arguably shooting itself in the foot in terms of branding. Last season, Leinster and Scarlets played each other twice in the league. In both games, both teams were without their best players because of the international window. It was a lost opportunity to market a near back-to-back between the two best teams in the league. The Pro14 is trying to pull in more TV money – it would help to have its top players actually playing.

PRO: European and international success. Pro14 teams won both European cups last season. Ireland, Wales, and Scotland were the top three teams in the 6 Nations. Many pundits argued that squad rotation was a key reason for that success. Player welfare is a hot topic right now and it’s hard to argue against the policy of resting international players to keep them in top shape for the biggest games.

Is there a solution? Are the alternatives better?

Two seasons ago, when no team from the Pro14 made the Champions Cup semi-finals, many blamed the league. Last season, when only one English team made the quarter-finals, many praised the Pro14. Such things are cyclical. The Unions run the Pro14, not the clubs, and it is in their best interests to have their top players managed. For that reason, squad rotation is probably here to stay.

Any tweaks to the league to improve TV ratings will always risk prioritising the wrong things and warping the competition. Tweaking the fixtures to match up the “top” teams at peak points is also likely to be controversial. Moreover, the “top” teams can change pretty quickly: Connacht finished eighth in 2016-17, a season they started as champions.

On the other hand, everyone knows that money talks. Leinster’s second string team won their game away from home; Ospreys’ second string team did not. A number of factors contribute to the fact that Leinster’s squad is so good but money is certainly one of them.

There will always be ways to succeed without money and it doesn’t always guarantee you success. But it definitely helps. If the Pro14 can be tweaked in ways that increase the TV money generated without compromising the competition, it will benefit all the teams in it. It’s happened before and it’s likely to happen again.

What’s the future?

In an ideal world, squad rotation would still be standard, allowing the unions to manage and rest player workloads. Fans would get to see both emerging and established talent. But all the teams would have squads strong enough to compete in every game, raising the standard of the league.

Instead of walkovers like Munster v Ospreys in Round 3, we would have contests like this season’s matchup of Scarlets and Leinster in Round 2. While neither team was full-strength, both had many of their top players and it was an excellent, fiercely fought match.

In that scenario, the Pro14 would have the best of both worlds. For now, squad rotation is here to stay. Fans will hope that the match ups we see in the future aren’t too uneven and the benefits are worth it.

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