Tony Ward: Cause for concern but we must approach PRO14 with open mind
I couldn't say I was overcome with excitement at the prospect of this 'revamped' PRO14 League. Like most I'm curiously intrigued but not overwhelmed as 21st century rugby continues on its revolutionary way.
South of the zero line, the Pro Rugby equivalent began with Super 10 and made its way through 12, 14, 16 and 18 before making its way back down again.
To this observer, conferences smack of scary things. How can it possibly be a League in the most equitable sense of that term when the competing teams have differing fixture schedules?
I love Super Rugby because for me the New Zealand teams epitomise on a weekly basis what All Black rugby is all about. The national side - still by some way the world's best - is a direct product of the quality of New Zealand provincial (Super) rugby.
The introduction of conferences over the past two years (albeit out of necessity due to numbers) has devalued the competition and I suspect the organisers will have breathed a massive sigh of relief when the Crusaders eventually came out on top in the 2017 final in Jo'burg. With respect to the South African, Australian, Argentinian and Japanese franchises, the Kiwis are operating on a different planet.
On the plus side for the PRO14, the gap between the competing nations is not so vast ... Italy aside. Sometime soon that Italian nettle is going to have to be grasped. But yes, of course, we wish Conor O'Shea, Stevie Aboud and Michael Bradley the best in their upcoming endeavours at club and national level. It is all about money and specifically TV rights with each of the 'PRO12' teams set to receive an extra £500,000 upon the inclusion of the Kings and Cheetahs.
And yet, even with the competition up and running, word is of difficulty still in securing an Italian broadcaster. If all five competing nations can't be convinced of the potential quality, what are the chances in terms of selling broadcast rights for the wider world?
While the need for a domestic competition to fuel the professional game is a no-brainer, I found the Celtic League in its earlier manifestations difficult to warm to. In recent years that has changed and the quality of rugby and competitiveness has improved dramatically. The Guinness Pro12 in the last three years produced fine winners playing quality rugby. Specifically, I refer to Glasgow Warriors, Connacht and the Scarlets. It is the Kiwi patent followed by Gregor Townsend, Pat Lam and Wayne Pivac.
We might not like admitting it but the change too from ERC (Heineken Cup) to EPCR (Champions Cup), and specifically the introduction of meritocracy in terms of Celtic and Italian teams having to qualify for the following season's premier competition, has provided a huge impetus - although the Italian situation regarding qualification is laughable.
Given the frantic (and I would like to think honourable) effort to embrace the Eastern Transvaal (Kings) and Orange Free State (Cheetahs), it is with an open mind we approach this new PRO14 adventure. There will be very practical problems along the way, not least in terms of seasonal variation in the respective countries. Our winter is their summer, making little elaboration necessary particularly on the High Veld in Bloemfontein.
So our wish-list for the coming season, in no particular order, reads:
Every team, irrespective of conference, attempts to play the game the New Zealand way
To be fair to Michael Cheika, and for all the criticism he has shipped of late, the Wallabies attempted to do just that in Dunedin and almost succeeded in topping the ABs at their own all-embracing game with the end product riveting.
Munster turn logic upside down
This is heart-over-head stuff but I cannot believe what is going on in Munster since last spring or thereabouts. Rassie Erasmus has done an extraordinary job since taking the coaching reins and in exceptional circumstances. However, the pantomime that is Munster Rugby in relation to time of departure couldn't be made up. It is a shambles and nothing short. That said, the red in me wants Munster competing with the best and also the New Zealand way. The absence of a heavyweight coaching appointment over the summer beggars belief.
Leinster come of age
This campaign will be the fourth since Leinster, and Jamie Heaslip as captain, last lifted the winners' trophy. The time is now right for the new generation to come of age. Such is the strength in depth, I'll not even attempt to list the quality coming through. If there is a stronger academy or underage system in world rugby right now, I don't know it. Leo Cullen, Stuart Lancaster, Girvan Dempsey and John Fogarty know the score better than me. No team is better equipped to win consistently and in style.
New coaching impact be felt at Edinburgh and Dragons
While David Rennie is taking over a proven entity at Scotstoun (the Warriors), for Richard Cockerill and Bernard Jackman, in Edinburgh and Newport respectively, the hope is that the only way is up. A successful PRO14 demands 14 competitive sides. I make the same comment in relation to Zebre and Treviso but in all honesty I despair with the Azzurri at this stage.
South African sides are given ample opportunity to bed down
There is no barometer by which to measure where rugby in Port Elizabeth and Bloemfontein is currently at. The Kings and Cheetahs could hit the ground running, or, conversely, be found badly wanting for what is a cultural change to European rugby, in style and intensity.
The key to interest and selling TV rights globally is quality and competitiveness and just as the Auckland Blues consistently under perform Down Under, so too the Cardiff Blues and Ulster here. There is no finer place to be than in a heaving Kingspan on a Friday night as they showed again last night by mauling the visiting Cheetahs.