Saturday 23 September 2017

Time to shake up the Pro12

Denis Leamy

I was lucky enough to win three Celtic League medals, but our season in Munster always was – and probably always will be – defined by how we do in the Heineken Cup.

That's the top aim every single time. The European Cup is a wonderful competition that has embraced Munster every bit as Munster has embraced it.

There is no doubt Munster helped it grow – the thousands travelling to away games, the heartbreak and the joy. And there is no doubt the Heineken Cup brought Munster to a new level.

We have won the Celtic League, or RaboDirect Pro12 as it is at the moment, more often than the Heineken Cup and each of the three wins, in its own way, was hugely important at the time.

But the day has now come when the Celtic League needs to move to a new level.

It has evolved over the past dozen years or so – when I arrived on the scene there were two pools and loads of Welsh clubs – and the structure of recent years has helped it improve.

However, change is now needed. The games need to be meaningful to the end; each match, from the outset, should be vital to each team.

It's hard to know how to achieve that without linking the Celtic League to the Heineken Cup. The Heineken Cup should have the best 24 teams in Europe playing in it. It doesn't.

Look at the past few years. Aironi were formed in Italy and within weeks were in the Heineken Cup; Connacht had been battling for a decade and a half to get there.

In England and France, every year, there are clubs with budgets and resources way bigger than here and they fail to make the cut.

SYMPATHY

I would find it difficult to have sympathy with the French and English clubs, given the budgets and huge population, but I can understand their frustration at having to field their strongest team every week and then come up against a Welsh or Irish or Scottish side in a crucial Heineken Cup fixture who have been resting players.

However, I don't have the complete solution.

Perhaps the existing countries should be guaranteed a place – maybe two in the case of Wales and Ireland and one each for the Scots and Italians – and the remainder decided on how they finish in the Celtic League.

Imagine the battle in the derby games in Italy or Scotland if the sole guaranteed Heineken Cup place was up for grabs?

It would also add further intensity to the derbies in Ireland and Wales.

But, more importantly, from start to finish, every game would be important.

The French Top 14 has been up and running for the past few weeks and they have all been fielding their full-strength sides in front of huge crowds.

It will be the same in England this weekend. They have no choice because the points won or lost this weekend could be the difference between playing in the Heineken Cup or not next season.

It is professional sport and that is the competition you need to be playing in.

It is hard to predict a Pro12 winner, not least as teams will be under-strength for various stages.

But Leinster look like the side with the most resources. Joe Schmidt took them to a new level and now Matt O'Connor will have a hard act to follow. But it was the same when Schmidt took over from Michael Cheika and look what he did.

Ospreys, who have a great record in this competition, also look like they will be there or thereabouts. It is hard to see the other Welsh sides in contention.

Glasgow have made big progress in the past few years and really need to make a serious bid this time, but I'm not so sure that they will.

This is also a massive season for Ulster, a real crossroads. They reached the Pro12 final last season and the Heineken Cup final the previous year, both times being overcome by Leinster.

They have some serious talent, the Springboks have made a big impact and there are some fine youngsters coming through to augment the likes of Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble.

But if they are serious, they have to win silverware this season. They just have to make the big breakthrough and reaching finals is not enough.

And what of Munster? A top-four finish is a must. Home advantage usually dictates the outcome of the semi-finals in this competition. Achieve that and anything could happen.

The show gets on the road against an Edinburgh side they will also meet in the Heineken Cup this season.

A good start is vital, but a good finish is even more important. The key to it is to get enough done during the year, both when you have your full squad and when you don't. You must make sure that you are in contention at the business end and not just fulfilling fixtures for the sake of it.

There is enough of that already with the way the competition is structured.

Irish Independent

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