Iain Morrison: Rugby’s Guinness Pro12 needs a refresher

Glasgow celebrate last seasons Pro12 title triumph in Belfast. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU

Glasgow celebrate last seasons Pro12 title triumph in Belfast. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU

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Not one Guinness Pro12 team made it into the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup and the Dragons’ admirable run in the second-tier Challenge Cup will probably hit the buffers in Montpellier next weekend, which has caused some soul searching among the Celtic League board which last met 12 days ago.

The Pro12 is something of a Cinderella story, while the English and French rivals with all their clout are, of course, the ugly sisters. However the analogy is less than perfect because England’s Aviva Premiership simply isn’t ugly any more, with the likes of Exeter and Wasps playing a superb style of running rugby. The Pro12’s unique selling point as Europe’s answer to Super Rugby is no longer unique. Ahead of this weekend, the Aviva’s top two try-scoring teams (Exeter and Wasps) had scored 14 more tries between them than the Pro12’s most prolific pair, Connacht and Glasgow, after the same number of games.

It’s not that the Pro12 is unloved because numbers are rising. Leinster v Munster attracted 43,108 fans to the Aviva Stadium recently, Edinburgh and Glasgow set a new attendance record in December and “Judgment Day” will do the same at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium when all four Welsh regions play in front a record Pro12 crowd later this month; the high of 52,763 ticket sales was surpassed with a fortnight remaining.

Furthermore, the Pro12 has improved hand over fist since the play-offs were introduced and since qualification for Europe Champions Cup was tightened up.

Just three matches from the end of the season and every Pro12 tie this weekend was meaningful for one reason or another. But the Pro12 remains the poor relation, the country cousins that struggle to compete with the big boys on the block. It has to fight Darwinian style for survival in the jungle of European rugby and must evolve faster than the twin behemoths of the Aviva and the French Top 14 to do so.

One insider stated that in terms of changes, “everything was on the table” as the Pro12 managing director Martin Anayi admitted that the league was in the middle of a consultation process.

“It’s a good competition but it could be a great one. We need to do some big things over the next 12 months,” Anayi argued in a recent interview.

Here are just some of the ideas to improve the quality and the profile of the Pro12 that have been kicked around recently.

1. Arrivederci Italia!

They bring next to nothing to the party so why bother with the twin Italian teams? It’s a valid question but it is a little too early to give up on them just yet. Glasgow and Edinburgh have both been in the same position and not so very long ago.

Italy needs to pump some money into the teams and get them properly professional. When Conor O’Shea had his first formal meeting with the FIR after they unveiled the Irishman as Italy’s national coach, he was surprised to learn that Treviso and Zebre’s strength and conditioning team consisted of one man on a part-time contract. For comparison’s sake Glasgow have three full time S&C coaches plus an intern.

Cons: It would cut Italy adrift and cut off access to a huge domestic market which may yet embrace the Pro12 with the same love it has shown the Six Nations.

Chances of it happening: Almost none right now but not impossible if the Italians don’t make significant strides in the next few years.

2. Expand, divide and conquer.

The Pro12 boss Anayi has argued that it made no sense playing league matches on international weekends because viewing figures dropped by 45 per cent with almost all the league’s stars absent.

In a normal season like 2014-15 (ie a non-World Cup year) the Pro12 plays on three international weekends, once in November, twice in the Six Nations, but also loses the vast majority of its best players in the weekends preceding the two Test windows and in the two “down” weekends in the middle of the Six Nations.

Either the league abandons the Italians, which will give a ten-team league 18 regular-season games, or as Anayi prefers, the Pro12 can expand and create two conferences which would play off against each other at the end of the season.

Cons: There are few suitable candidates lining up to join the Pro12. A team from Georgia has been mooted but only by someone who failed geography because it is three time zones and a seven-hour flight from London.

The London exile clubs are the obvious candidates but there are only three and to justify two conferences you would need at least ten clubs in each to make the season financially viable.

Chances of it happening: Modest... in the short term.

3. Invite the exiles to the party

London Welsh and London Scottish both play in England’s second-tier Championship and London Irish may soon join them depending upon the outcome of this afternoon’s big match against Newcastle Falcons. The prospect of the exile clubs joining the Pro12 is lip-smacking because it would grant access to a huge new, wealthy market of fans and corporate sponsors from the south-east of England. Access to the nation’s capital is quick and easy and Richmond Rugby are about to redevelop the Athletic Ground to include a 5,000-seat stadium.

Cons: The RFU may kybosh the idea if local clubs like Harlequins kick up a stink.

Chances of it happening: You have to hope so.

4. Move matches abroad

It’s not a new idea. London Irish played Sarries in New York just last month where they attracted just shy of 15,000 fans. Market it properly with Leinster/Munster/Ulster against Ospreys/Cardiff/Glasgow and that number should be easy to beat given the ex-pat population in New York/Boston/Toronto.

Cons: It’s not new and the USA now has its own pro league.

Chances of it happening: High.

5. Market the Pro12 properly

Large stadiums with a smattering of fans don’t do the league justice and look terrible on television no matter how clever the editor is at picking the camera angle. Clubs like Edinburgh and Cardiff and to a lesser extent the Ospreys and Scarlets need to do more to attract fans through the gate. So do the Italians.

Cons: None.

Chances of it happening: Too obvious to ignore... or so you’d think.

6. Play off against the Aviva winners

Both leagues finish at around the same time but it may make better sense to hold it pre-season like the football Community Shield since many Celtic/English teams already play October warm-up matches.

Cons: It adds one week to the season.

Chances of it happening: English clubs are more likely to look across the channel.

7. Neutral referees

Pat Lam is not the only one to question the standard of officials in the Pro12 with accusing fingers pointed at almost every whistle blower with the exception of 
Nigel Owens. Neutral is less important than good but the days of local “touchies” may be coming to an end after numerous horror stories, most of which originate in the valleys.

Cons: The prohibitive cost.

Chances of it happening: The momentum is building.

8. Keep your stars

That may not be an option when the French and English clubs wave wads of cash under the noses of the Pro12 stars but every effort has to be made to keep the marquee players inside the Celtic tent.

Cons: The prohibitive cost.

Chances of it happening: Follow the money... and the money leads elsewhere.

These are just a few of the ideas that have been kicking around but having promised us action it seems unlikely that Anayi and the rest of the Celtic board will sit on their backsides and do nothing. It needs to be vibrant because the alternative to the Pro12... well, there isn’t one.

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