The Guinness Pro12 looks set for the biggest shake-up since the Italian teams were invited to the party back in 2010 only this time the Italian teams, Zebre and Benetton Treviso, are in danger of being shown the exit door instead.
As we know the Pro12 is keen, desperate even, to open a franchise in North America and it is almost certain that Houston will get the nod for the season after next, 2018-19. While the USA Eagles were rumoured to be interested in running the franchise this venture will be operated by independent investors.
The other venue was to have been Toronto but instead of adding these franchises to the existing 12-team league and running two divisions as previously proposed, elements within the Pro12 threatened to jettison the under-performing Italian teams altogether.
According to one reliable source a senior Pro12 executive wrote a scathing letter to the Italian Federation (FIR) after the Six Nations in which he accused the Italians of bringing almost nothing of commercial value to the Pro12 table in terms of sponsors, TV deal, fans etc etc. Twenty years after professionalism, Italian rugby is stuck in amateur hour. This season Zebre players have not always been paid on time and in full.
The Welsh and Scots are said to want shot of the Italians while the Irish, with one eye on votes for their bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup, are a little less vocal.
The timing is crucial because Italy is due to become a full member of the Pro12 on 1 July but this is now looking increasingly unlikely. Instead, the Italians would have to pay just to participate. Such terms were bound to be rejected by Italy but that may have been part of the Pro12’s plan because it had two handy substitutes waiting in the wings to replace the Italian teams; Houston and Toronto.
Since then the Pro12 appears to have rowed back somewhat in the face of legal threats from the FIR and a charm offensive by Italy’s Irish coach Conor O’Shea, pictured, who has been involved in shuttle diplomacy. He met World Rugby’s president Bill Beaumont last week when he made a passionate appeal for the game’s governing body to stand behind the Italians in their time of need. O’Shea was in London on Tuesday of this week and attended meetings with the SRU in Edinburgh on Wednesday morning.
The timeline is uncertain but the Pro12 appears to have relented, dropping Toronto, at least for the time being, to make way for a new Italian franchise based in Rome – and never mind that a suitable stadium is hard to come by. The FIR could purchase the lease on the Stadio Flaminio, where Italy used to play Six Nations games, but the old ground would need so much money spent on upgrades that it may not be commercially viable and the clock is ticking.
Fifteen months may sound a lot but it is the blink of an eye when you are attempting to start a sports franchise from scratch.
One senior Italian source argued forcibly that Italy needs two professional teams to have any chance of competing in the Six Nations, and so they do, but perhaps the long-term goal is to replace Italy with the USA Eagles in the Six Nations.
Incidentally Italy is reeling from one body blow just as they brace themselves for another. This coming week a meeting of the board of European Professional Club Rugby is expected to remove the ruling that specifies one team from every nation must compete in the Champions Cup, one of the key commitments when the new tournament was rolled out three seasons ago.
It’s not clear which way the Scots will vote on the issue but only six years ago both Edinburgh (8th) and Glasgow (11th) finished outside the top six automatic qualification spots.
All of which leaves the Pro12 and the FIR at loggerheads. The latter’s demand for two franchises has little behind it other than pleas to “do the right thing” which are falling on deaf ears.
Nothing is set in stone although Houston looks like a done deal and a side in Rome is probable, presuming the FIR come around to the idea that one franchise is better than none at all.
Welcome to the impact zone where commercial concerns run headlong into rugby’s traditional values of aiding the game’s stragglers. Only one winner there, you might think.
Fingers crossed that Scotland don’t find themselves in a similar painful position some way down the line.