Ger Gilroy: Lam departure a sign of Pro12's weakness
There's nothing like a big cheque waved in the face of one of your most prized employees to remind a business of its status in the world.
For the Pro12 and Connacht, it's humbling, embarrassing, maddening and very, very worrying that Pat Lam can be seduced by a struggling Premiership team, who might not even be a Premiership team by the time Lam arrives. The problem is one for Irish rugby generally and the Pro12 specifically. For Connacht, it's terrible news and a reminder that the Pro12 is not even second rate anymore, but a distant third in European terms and will remain so until it disappears.
How can a made-up combined market of Ireland, Scotland and Wales hope to compete against England and France? It's 14 million versus 54 million for England and 64 million for France. Irrespective even of the numbers playing the game, the money generated is from television companies and brands seeking to communicate with couch potatoes who buy TV subscriptions, internet, cars, beer and whatever else.
Most of the big brands are doing their huge sponsorship deals from London offices further diminishing the pool that the Pro12 swims in. Maybe a buoyant economy can help the league last another decade or so but over that period the best coaches and players will be drawn to where the best jobs and most money are. That's how professional sport works.
The economics of club rugby in Europe suggest the Celtic League is doomed eventually. Combined with the fact that the RFU and FFR lost control of the club game in England and France a decade ago, it means there are powerful economic forces aligning to ensure that two leagues prosper. The English and French clubs torpedoed the Heineken Cup and carved up the European club game to suit their own agendas.
Undoubtedly the club product in France and England is not good right now; too many games are giant fat men wobbling into contact followed by another pick and go, pick and jam, ruck, wobble, repeat. That doesn't mean those leagues will stand still; if second-rate clubs can hire the best coaches, players and innovators things will change. Meantime, the Pro12 talent drain continues.
The Pro12 is not exciting until the final six or eight weeks and there's no genuine prospect of that changing any time soon. They had no TMO at the Connacht-Treviso game and it's not the first time. If the league doesn't care about its own product how can they convince everyone else to? Do the Unions who run the Pro12 really want strong club sides who can economically fly for themselves and want to exert control over the players?
They're stuck in a bind because if they aren't part of the solution then the solution will happen around them. Perhaps the future is in a unified pan-European NFL model where the club game is played at a set time of year. Keep local rivalries, protect players, no relegation.