Wednesday 28 September 2016

Poor relations face struggle for relevance as Pro12 ambition surveys broader territory

Published 29/08/2016 | 02:30

Connacht captain John Muldoon collects the Pro12 trophy last season. The competition is in its 16th season and still struggling to shed its reputation as a second-class product. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Connacht captain John Muldoon collects the Pro12 trophy last season. The competition is in its 16th season and still struggling to shed its reputation as a second-class product. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

In this business, experience gives one a keen sceptic's nose for BS. So when Guinness Pro 12 CEO Martin Anayi took to speechifying at his competition's launch last Tuesday, we sat back in less than exultant expectation.

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The Aviva dais usually begets assembly daze; and it was not an auspicious start by our man afore the rostrum.

"The fan needs to be readjusted in terms of their importance," he tells us. It is much too early for this. It is tempting to ponder how to re-adjust his importance by, perhaps, ejecting him forcibly through the nearest window.

We pine for more lush poetry from the sonorous throat of that gifted Welsh wizard Gerald Davies, the Pro12 chairman, who has just emoted a joyous snatch of Browning - "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?"

But then Anayi, decrying our unfair perception of him as just another smart boy with a decade of MBA service behind him, then talks as good a game as ever Davies and his kith once played.

Simple

And borrows a tad from Browning, for good measure. A simple message. The Pro12 desperately needs to reach somewhere.

JFK brought the US to the moon not because it was easy; it was good business. In the same way, the Pro 12 will seek to break new ground Stateside.

Anayi knows what the Pro12 is and what it wants - more, precisely, what it needs - to become. It is a grand vision; not yet shared.

Too many are utterly indifferent to the fact that Leinster kick the thing off against Treviso in the RDS this Friday; a less than full-strength Irish side, in a less than full stadium against frankly, as history shows, an uncompetitive opposition.

It's one for the hard core and, for the most part, that's what the Pro12 serves; the hard core. But even the hard core are softening.

Munster joined Leinster in parading empty swathes of real estate last term and, with both sides flopping in Europe, that hits the area where professional rugby likes getting hit the least - in the wallets.

The Irish provinces are propped up by an IRFU whose main income is derived from the international game and, at a push, unexpected bounties from the Champions Cup - a competition that does appeal to a wider Irish sporting public.

The Pro12 is expensive bread to butter and, with the English and French domestic leagues drawing in jaw-dropping TV revenues, it is Anayi's task to try to source the extra moolah.

First, however, must come the prestige and the Pro12, in its 16th season, has never shed its reputation as a second-class product.

It is bad enough that it is treated diffidently by media, TV and punters; but when its own players and coaches have often been less than enthused, that is a major problem.

Anayi - and others - know it is not their problem alone. It is rugby's. As the professional game comes of age, the calendar remains a distorted mess.

Everyone is sick of it. Players. Supporters. Administrators. Everyone knows it's a problem requiring a solution but there remains little hope of finding one that suits everyone.

The elephant in the room is the Six Nations, the jewel in the northern hemisphere crown. It spins so much moolah that neither England nor Ireland want it to be moved.

New Zealand are threatening to turn off their own financial tap; hence, no more jolly japes in the US with the Irish-American Paddies and, while they're at it, the Kiwis would also start demanding a share of their globe-trotting escapades.

All the while, the English and French clubs, like runaway personal fiefdoms, are flexing their own increasing financial muscle and are themselves threatening to usurp the international order.

TV money - the true currency of a sport's worth - tells its own basic economic lesson in relativity.

France's Top 14 earn a scarcely credible €97m a season; England €45m while the Pro12, until a re-negotiation in two years, pulls in a measly €12m a season.

Go, as the Yanks say, figure.

Sky are happy to pay a modest fee, nothing more, for the 60,000 or so Celtic ex-pats who watch their service in England; the next, erm, battle for Irish TV Pro12 rights don't exactly hint at megabucks coming down the line any time soon.

The financial gap is slowly pulling up a competitive drawbridge, too; from 2006, Irish clubs won five of six European titles; since then, nada. Last season, none made the last eight.

The transfer market is skewed; not one Pro12 club has made a stellar signing this summer.

All of which has led Anayi to cast his eyes towards markets where the money might come from in the future, for there are little signs that he can get any more from the current source.

The IRFU are clearly enthusiastic about plans to pitch a Pro12 flag in the US (Toulon and Racing may already have beaten them to the West Coast!)

Compromise

But, in return, Anayi will press all around for guaranteed access to all the Pro 12's internationals, as well as compromise on the global season.

To which we say to Anayi, good luck with that. He will need every ounce of Browning's vaulting ambition.

For now, a Pro 12 with weak Welsh and infirm Italians will plod on, desperate to boast that its league boasts more tries and less interruption than any other in the world.

Sadly, the world won't listen.

Connacht encapsulated the competition's sporting boasts when they lifted the title; they will not stage a repeat. However, all four Irish will finish in the top six. Ulster, perennial underachievers, are overdue success but their sorry history always invites suspicion of late collapse.

Leinster and Munster have a greater need to prosper in Europe. After all, that's where the riches lie. But the Pro12 is the pair's only realistic chance of silverware.

A Munster v Leinster final in Dublin would, if anything, bring back those sepia-tinted memories of what the future of Irish rugby used to look like.

Main ins-and-outs

Connacht

In: Eoin Griffin (London Irish), Marnitz Boshoff (Lions) Cian Kelleher (Leinster), Lewis Stevenson (Exeter Chiefs), Dominic Robertson-McCoy (Northland), Conor Carey (Nottingham).

Out: Rodney Ah You (Ulster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), AJ MacGinty (Sale Sharks), Aly Muldowney (Grenoble), George Naupu (Harlequins), Jason Harris-Wright (London Irish), Ian Porter (Banbury), Api Pewhairangi (London Broncos RL), Dave McSharry, Fionn Carr (retired).

Leinster

In: Robbie Henshaw (Connacht), Ian Nagle (London Irish), Jamison Gibson-Park (Hurricanes), NIall Morris (Leicester).

Out: Ben Te'o (Worcester), Ian Madigan (Bordeaux-Begles), Marty Moore (Wasps), Cian Kelleher (Connacht), Tom Denton (Gloucester), Isaac Boss (Waikato), Luke Fitzgerald, Eoin Reddan, Darragh Fanning, Kevin McLaughlin (retired), Royce Burke-Flynn, Collie O'Shea, Tony Ryan (released).

Munster

In: Sam Arnold, John Andress (Ulster), Jean Kleyn, Jaco Taute (Stormers).

Out: BJ Botha, Denis Hurley, Cathal Sheridan, Gerhard van der Heever (released), Jordan Coghlan, Shane Buckley, Gearoid Lyons (Nottingham), Jack Cullen (London Scottish).

Ulster

In: Charles Piutau (Auckland), Rodney Ah You (Connacht), Marcell Coetzee (Sharks)

Out: Sam Arnold, John Andress (Munster), Nick Williams (Cardiff), Rory Scholes (Edinburgh), Ian Humphreys (retired), Willie Faloon, Ruaidhri Murphy (released).

Irish Independent

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