Both European club competitions will have an Anglo-French final. This is welcome; it means they retain international interest. Nevertheless, in the two cups English clubs provided five of the eight semi-finalists, and this, following England’s Grand Slam, suggests that we may have entered a period of English dominance in the northern hemisphere.
Certainly the Pro12 clubs made a very disappointing show in Europe this year. The hope is, of course, that this season was exceptional on account of the World Cup. England were out of it only a week earlier than Scotland, Wales and Ireland. So their international players weren’t back with their clubs that much earlier. Nevertheless there was a significant difference. No English club made such a big contribution to their national team as Glasgow, Leinster and Ospreys made to theirs, each of them having a full XV at least in their country’s World Cup squad. So recovery from the World Cup took longer for them. All made a slow start to their European Cup campaign, Glasgow, for instance, losing their first-round match at home to Northampton; and never really recovered. So judgment should be reserved till we see how things go next season.
Nevertheless the omens are not good. This isn’t because of the revised shape of the competition, though that was forced on the Pro12 unions by an Anglo-French alliance. There are other worrying signs. The confirmation of the rumour that Leone Nakarawa would be ending his contract with Glasgow a year early, and moving to a French club (as yet not identified) is significant. Likewise Leinster’s outstanding New Zealand centre Ben Te’o is crossing to England. These moves suggest the way things are going
Of course it’s more and more common for players to switch clubs, but the implication of these transfers is that, while Pro12 clubs can still attract top-quality players from the southern hemisphere, they may find it more difficult to retain them. None of them can compete with the salaries that the leading English and French clubs can offer.
Nobody can sensibly blame players for doing what seems in their best interests. Even today, a rugby career is comparatively short, and there aren’t many years of high earnings. A player who comes north from one of the South Sea Island countries, or indeed from New Zealand, Australia or South Africa, may give of his very best, may develop an affection for the club he has joined and form close friendships with his team-mates, but whatever he feels for Glasgow or Leinster, he can’t be expected to think he has a duty to remain there because Scottish rugby needs a strong Glasgow, Irish rugby a strong Leinster.
Moreover, while a Scottish or Irish or Welsh player might weigh up an attractive offer from a French or English club against the possibility of losing his place in his national squad, the star import will have no such fear. The result is that high-quality foreigners may come to a Pro12 club, and then, if they make their mark, be wooed by a top English or French club, but it’s highly unlikely that comparable players will be lured from France or England to play in the Pro12. It’s partly the size of the cheque, partly what may seem to be the better chance of winning a European trophy. Interviewed after Racing 92 had beaten Leicester to reach the Champions Cup final, Dan Carter said this was why he had come to play in Europe. It’s inconceivable that he could have been lured to Scotland, Ireland or Wales.
It’s not, of course, that long since Leinster and Munster were winning the old Heineken Cup, and supporters of both clubs may claim they are in a state of transition and the good times will return. There is reason for optimism. Admittedly Munster are much less than they were in their glory years as any team that had lost players like Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan would be, but Leinster remain a very good team who may again win the Pro12 title. Moreover, measured by attendances, Irish rugby remains in a very healthy condition. One might add that next weekend’s double header in the Principality Stadium – “Judgment Day”, as the Welsh have taken to calling it – will attract a crowd about as large as the sum of the two Champions Cup semi-finals in England last week while, if Glasgow are in the Pro12 final, Murrayfield will surely have a record crowd for a club match there. All this is true. Yet one can’t avoid the thought that the big battalions are to be found in England and France, and that the odds are more heavily stacked against the Pro12 clubs than was the case a few years ago.