Last weekend was not a good one for the Guinness Pro12 clubs in the Champions Cup. Of the six clubs competing, five lost their ties while the sixth didn’t play at all. Stade Francais postponed their Paris match against Munster, although you doubt the pools panel would mark it an away win.
s recently as 2012, the Pro12 produced three of the four European Cup semi-finalists as Leinster went on to beat Ulster in that Aviva final. A few short years later and the Pro12 are struggling to ensure any representation in the last eight. English clubs bleated for years that the dice were stacked against them but if they are arguing the opposite now they are doing so very quietly.
Wasps and Bath have both beaten Leinster in the last two weekends, Saracens hammered Ulster in Belfast and Glasgow were a poor second to Northampton in their Scotstoun stronghold. Ospreys were the best of a bad bunch, earning two bonus points at Clermont but only after grabbing two tries in the final 35 seconds of a bizarre match.
What the heck happened?
Money may be an obvious answer but in the world of elite sport it does not so much talk as howl from the rooftops. Only last week George North chose to ignore ‘Gatland’s Law’ and re-signed with Northampton. David Denton added around £100,000 to his annual salary when he swapped Edinburgh for Bath and Greig Laidlaw pretty much doubled his moolah in moving to Gloucester.
And it isn’t just the Scots.
The prospect of the stand-off groomed as Ronan O’Gara’s long-term replacement leaving Munster seemed as likely as the club swapping their traditional red strip for a corset and suspenders – but JJ Hanrahan duly quit Thomond Park last summer, snapped up by Northampton, who already have Stephen Myler on their books.
Meanwhile, his Welsh equivalent, Owen Williams, shows no sign of leaving Leicester Tigers and Rhys Priestland is at Bath.
Only last week Richie Gray swapped one French club for another but if the Top 14 are in another financial league altogether the English are fast catching up. A body chosen to investigate breaches of the Aviva Premiership’s salary cap took the unprecedented decision not to make their findings public while claiming with a straight face that no wrongdoing had been proven. Anyway, the official salary cap rises to £7 million in 2017/18.
Add in various allowances and two marquee players who are excluded and that number actually tops out between £9-10 million. Glasgow currently spend about £5 million by way of comparison, so holding on to the next Niko Matawalu is going to be no easier than keeping the original model.
If Pro12 teams expect to be outbid by the financial muscle of the Top 14 and the Aviva, they must have been stunned by the size of the carrot reportedly dangled in front of Leinster’s Ian Madigan by an English Championship club – albeit one with Premiership pretensions.
Bristol are said to have offered the midfielder £350,000 a year. Ten years ago that would have been the biggest salary in Europe, now it is being offered by a second division side to a stand-off who can’t command a start for club or country.
It got lost in the World Cup hubbub but the Pro12 appointed a managing director to raise the league’s profile, on the commercial and marketing side. Martin Anayi, pictured left, boasts a background with IMG in motor sport and an Irish/Iraqi heritage that warns against starting a stramash, so I tread carefully when I suggest he picked a tough time to join Pro12.
“I would say the other way around,” Anayi counters. “I have come in at a very good time. You can’t look at results of just one round, you have to look at the whole and we had good results (in the Challenge Cup) by Connacht and Zebre.
“Part of my job is to actually focus on the good things and there are a lot of good things going on in the Pro12. We have proper competition to get into Europe. We have a proper broadcaster base. We have some amazing coverage. We have 130 games live across the course of the season. We have some fantastic spectacle games like the Judgement game (the Millennium Stadium double header) and the 1872 Cup. Those are the things that we focus on and want to develop.”
Anayi makes the valid point that several marquee names have returned to the Pro12 and several others are on the way. Jonny Sexton boasts the highest profile but Dan Lydiate (Ospreys) and Jon Davies, who returns to Scarlets colours next season, are not far behind. But for every player returning ‘home’ there is one who has stayed away and another on the brink of leaving.
Luke Charteris has quit Racing only to join Bath. Jamie Roberts has left Racing but signed for Harlequins, once he gets the Varsity Match out of the way, and who knows how many are looking for a quick getaway this summer. Simon Zebo is linked with Pau, while both Toulon and Clermont are said to be courting Alun-Wyn Jones. Taulupe Faletau has already stayed with the Dragons far longer than anyone expected and clubs are queueing up for Sean O’Brien’s signature.
There is no danger that the Pro12 will become a feeder for the wealthier leagues in England and France because it has already happened. The question is whether it matters and Anayi adopts a sanguine view.
He argues: “Whilst there is clearly a disparity in the wage bill we don’t have that model. We have a different model and focus on how that model can work for us. The Pro12 is run by unions and it allows unions to fill our ranks with top class talent who have been unearthed at an early stage.
“It’s exactly what Super Rugby has been doing for years and been doing incredibly well so I don’t think it’s any different.”
Instead of hard cash Anayi looks to innovation and entertainment. He wants the Pro12 to emulate Super Rugby on the field with an exciting brand of running rugby, but all he offers by way of innovation is a player mic and whatever possibilities player GPS tracking offers. The former has already been trialled: Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey played with a microphone in a September fixture against the Scarlets, the first player in the Northern Hemisphere to do so.
Against that, the Aviva’s idea of innovation is an eye-catching match in New York between London Irish and Saracens during the Six Nations.
The Pro12 has some catching up to do but Anayi is in no hurry to make the one innovation that could transform the league, swapping the twin Italian sides for the Scottish and Welsh exile clubs in London. He cites the obvious political problems of such a move and he insists that, with stability now guaranteed for a number of years, the Italians teams will eventually come good.
I hesitate to argue but, by his own admission, the new Pro12 boss is paid to be optimistic.