As the dust settles on another tour of the southern hemisphere, it is interesting to note the gulf in class in 2016 as well as the gulf in skill level, physicality, defensive shape and footballing intellect.
However, it is not the traditional northern hemisphere versus southern hemisphere argument I wish to reflect on here; it is the gulf in class between the respective leagues in the north.
England completed a 3-0 series whitewash over the Wallabies, a team who played in the World Cup final last October and disposed of England on their way. Excluding this impressive tour by the Red Rose, Wales and Ireland came away with one victory in six games against the other two southern powerhouses, New Zealand and South Africa.
Take out the Eddie Jones honeymoon phase factor and consider for a moment why England are so strong at present. There is one hugely obvious factor in all their successes: the strength of their league.
It has always been clear that the Aviva Premiership and Super Rugby competitions are far superior to the Guinness Pro12 in terms of skill level and, consequently, quality of games. Take any two fixtures in those competitions and compare them to a Pro12 game and without any doubt the more entertaining, better quality match won’t be Newport Gwent Dragons against Treviso.
Even watch the newly-formed Japanese Sunwolves and you won’t be disappointed by their displays in Super Rugby.
One thing is certain, and that’s the fact that the Pro12, in its current state, doesn’t attract significant crowds. The situation as it stands isn’t sustainable, with Munster for example including season ticket holders in official attendance figures to make the crowds look less pathetic on paper when the teams in the bottom half of the table come to Limerick or Cork.
The money floating around these clubs isn’t the same as the Premiership or Top 14 in France. Arguably, the Pro12 is more comparable to the English Championship than it is the Premiership in terms of attendances and attractiveness to the spectator. And, unfortunately, at international level we are paying the price. It is far from the only factor, but I see it as a huge reason as to why Ireland have never beaten New Zealand at senior level.
How can we expect the Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italian teams to consistently compete with these teams when week in, week out they are playing a much poorer standard of rugby in a weak league? The recent moves by the WRU and the IRFU to centrally contract their best players to keep them in their country were much publicised and hailed as successes by all the national supporters, who saw it leading to a huge upturn in their country’s fortunes.
However, what is the point of Marty Moore, who joined Wasps this season, playing against Treviso and Zebre every few weeks when he could be earning much better wages and competing against say, Exeter and Newcastle Falcons?
He was absolutely correct to leave. He will develop more against better competition and therefore strengthen the national side if others were to do the same.
I think David Nucifora and the IRFU need to reconsider this stance. Either that or the league format must change. Otherwise, our long-term ability to contest at international level will be threatened. Perhaps players shouldn’t be considered outcasts for going overseas.
Take Australia for example. World Cup finalists, they were unlucky to lose that game 34-17 to the All Blacks and they allowed players with 50 caps or more from overseas to play with them during the World Cup. Perhaps a similar law should be made for Irish players such as Moore and Ian Madigan, along with the likes of Chris Farrell at Grenoble.
Admittedly, the one “grande barrièrer” to any sort of reform of the Pro12 is the threat it would pose to French and European Cup rugby by the restructuring it along with its potential integration with the Aviva Premiership, which could be a viable alternative.
Good luck selling that one to the Premiership clubs, however.
Robbie Deegan, Pundit Arena