In his opening remarks at last week’s official launch in Dublin, Guinness Pro12 chairman Gerald Davies quoted the poet Robert Browning with the line “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp”.
The news over the summer that exploratory talks have been held over the possibility of adding an American team to the Celtic/Italian mix would certainly back up Browning’s sentiment and, as the competition’s 2016-17 season gets under way tonight, the reason for such a startling development emerging is pretty clear. Put simply, the Pro12 is slipping further behind the English and French leagues in terms of finances and quality.
As is the way at such events the positives were pushed in the Irish capital last week, and why not. There is still much to be positive about. The introduction of play-offs and grand finals has proved a success, with a record 34,500 watching Connacht beat Leinster at BT Murrayfield at the end of May. Pat Lam’s shock troops played with thrilling attacking verve, following on from the equally attractive style of previous champions Glasgow, in a league where the ball is in play more than any other major club competition in the world.
However, the most revealing stat from last season was the fact that not a single Pro12 side reached the knockout stage of the European Champions Cup, carrying on the trend of ever-increasing Anglo-French dominance.
The cashed up Aviva Premiership and French Top 14 are not going to be pegged back any time soon but the Pro12 season that lies ahead, nevertheless, comes with plenty of intrigue.
Glasgow head coach Gregor Townsend, who will be looking to finish on a high note before moving on to take up the Scotland job, predicts that eight teams have the potential to challenge for the title.
The World Cup distorted the start of last season, although Connacht coach Lam argues that it is unfair to say that was the sole reason his unfavoured side were able to rise to the top. Whatever the truth of that, it is clear that the Galway-based province face an almighty challenge to repeat the trick, especially with star centre Robbie Henshaw off to Leinster and tighthead linchpin Rodney Ah You to Ulster. Their opening clash at home to Glasgow tomorrow is the third in a Sportsground series that also included wins in the last game of the regular season and the semi-final play-off. As for the other Irish provinces, who were upstaged last term, Leinster will be hoping Henshaw can live up to his billing as the new Brian O’Driscoll, Ulster consistently battle it out for play-off contention, while Munster have tasked South African Rassie Erasmus with lifting their fortunes after a barren few years.
The Welsh teams, particularly disappointing last season, are sure to be more of a force, with Ospreys leading the way. Cardiff have been the great under-achievers of the league, boasting a host of Welsh internationals and British and Irish Lions, but failing to gel. The signs towards the end of last season were that they could do some damage this season.
The Italian teams have endured a miserable couple of years but will hope that the arrival of Conor O’Shea as national coach, with improving Treviso and Zebre a key part of his remit, will bear fruit – although don’t expect immediate miracles.
As for the Scots, Edinburgh are under pressure to get off to a good start to build some positivity ahead of their move to Myreside in January, while we have come to expect excellence from Glasgow.
Warriors forward Rob Harley said: “I think we had the most players at the World Cup of any club in the world last year. This time there has been a lot more togetherness and the chance to work on our structures.
“Hopefully that time we’ve spent together is going to pay off.”