In May of this year I worked at the Pro 12 final at Murrayfield and was treated to one of the best afternoons of rugby I have ever witnessed.
As the seemingly endless stream of Connacht fans entered the stadium, many of them were simply stunned that they were in the final at all, and at the final whistle a roar for the ages broke out that rocked Edinburgh to its very core. Nearly four months on and they were brought back down to earth with a thumping defeat to Glasgow, on a weekend that threw the plight of the Pro 12 into a harsh light.
The concept of a domestic league between the teams in Ireland, Wales and Scotland is a good one; there is no other way for these teams to get regular, competitive league action. For the last few years, however, the gap between this league and its counterparts in England and France has grown and is now in danger of becoming a chasm.
It’s too easy to simply blame money. Yes, the likes of Bath, Saracens and Toulon have vast bank accounts that put their Celtic rivals to shame, but that should not lead to the one-sided games that we see too often in the division.
Of course fans want to see the top players in the country playing for the clubs within that union, but players will always be drawn to overseas clubs if a large amount of money is offered. A rugby player’s career is short and there is no shame in wanting to make what you can while it is on offer. But the exodus of top names is not the root of the issues surrounding this league.
The Italian ‘experiment’ has failed, there’s no debating that. I wish it had been a resounding success and that we now had Treviso and Zebre competing on a regular basis but this just isn’t the case. Add this to the fact that teams from the Pro 12 appear to be falling away when it comes to the Champions Cup and there is a real problem developing.
So – what’s to be done? It would be unfair to simply dump the Italian clubs and lose what little success may have been achieved while they’ve been part of the league. I also don’t think that adding a team from America and Canada is going to solve any of the issues highlighted.
My idea – and I am not claiming to be a rugby logistics expert or money man – would be to create a second tier consisting of teams from Italy, Georgia, Romania, possibly Russia and, if desired, Canada and the USA. This would help develop rugby in these countries and the added threat of relegation might well force the teams in the Pro 12 to up their game in order to stay in the top division.
It may well seem a far-fetched scenario, but something has to be done; the teams in this division deserve to have a league to rival that of their close neighbours and at the moment they are being failed.
Niall Cook, Pundit Arena