Welsh must get act together for Pro12 to thrive
Irish 'Big Three' swimming against tide as league's quality is being put at risk by exodus and apathy of stars from Principality
Published 05/05/2014 | 02:30
As final weeks go, the Pro12 finds itself with a right damp squib.
The play-off places are known and, barring an unlikely shock result on the final day this Saturday, the semi-finals are effectively decided.
Unless Edinburgh manage to spoil Leinster's farewell party for Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen, the stalwarts will be back at the RDS to face Ulster on Friday week, while Glasgow Warriors are likely host Munster, barring a Zebre win at Scotstoun this weekend.
It's all the Italian minnows' fault really as their stunning, last-gasp win over the Ospreys removed the suspense from of the top-four race before the rest of the penultimate round had even gotten under way.
Ordinarily, the 12th-placed side would have checked out by this stage of the season but the carrot of a European place appears to have awoken the unheralded Parma-based side, who are now ahead of Treviso on points difference and poised to take the Italian place in the Rugby Champions Cup.
Their win over the Welsh region confirmed that there would be no teams from the Principality in the semi-finals for the first time since the grand final system was introduced in 2009/10, as well as guaranteeing there would be three Irish provinces in the line-up for the second time.
Whether that's a good thing is the big question.
Undoubtedly, Leinster, Munster and Ulster are the strongest teams in the league, a point emphasised by their being the Pro12's only representatives in the Heineken Cup knockout stages.
The asset-stripping of the Welsh regions by the big English and French clubs has lessened the quality available, while some of the big names who have remained in Wales have looked utterly uninterested in the competition.
Connacht aside, the three other provinces have dominated the Welsh sides this season, with Munster and Leinster losing just once each on their visits across the Irish Sea.
The international coaches' ability to dip their front-line players in and out of competition doesn't help, with mis-matches occurring in games that could be close if everyone was available, while squad depth also appears to be the ultimate factor in deciding where a teams finishes, and refereeing standards certainly vary wildly.
During the Six Nations, Joe Schmidt voiced his concerns as to whether league games were of the requisite pace and quality to prepare players for international rugby, while players themselves regularly speak of the difference in intensity between the domestic challenge and Europe.
Sky Sports taking over the broadcasting rights will have an impact and they should help regularise the erratic kick-off times.
The European incentive should also help next season, with teams aware of what they need to do right from the start of the campaign.
Ravenhill, perhaps, is the place that loves its Pro12 more than most. Helped by regular Friday night home games, Ulster managed to fill the Belfast stadium for all but two of this season's games.
"I have found it tough this year," insisted coach Mark Anscombe.
"We saw that on Thursday. It was great to see Zebre do that. They did us a favour.
"We have played them four times in my two years here and they're as tough as anyone to beat. We've scraped victories over there.
"On a given day, most teams can tip someone over and I think that's a credit to the competition."
Leinster Matt O'Connor reckons the Big Three are driving each other to succeed and, rather than look at things geographically, he reckons the strength of the top teams is a good reflection on the competition.
"It's getting stronger and stronger and it's really pleasing that there's three strong Irish provinces," he said.
Certainly, the derbies appear to be a step up from the more run-of-the-mill outings and Leinster's Martin Moore admitted that even a pre-season trip to Ravenhill had more intensity than some of the league games he had played in.
The best part of the campaign is still to come over the next four weeks and Irish interest has been guaranteed right to the final.
It is likely that we'll finish with a third Irish winner in four years and the provinces themselves would have reason to celebrate.
But the league needs the other teams, and the Welsh in particular, to follow Glasgow's lead and get stronger if it is to be fit for purpose in the years to come.