Tony Ward: After 20 years of scepticism, I'm a converted fan of the now PRO12
Published 16/05/2015 | 02:30
I have a confession to make. It's taken me the best part of 20 years to get there but I have finally been converted to the merits of Celtic/Italian/Pro12 rugby.
Of course we have always understood the need for a domestic competition to fuel the professional game but beyond that, save for the derby element plus the occasional semi-final or final (under the play-off system), it's been a long haul for the league to find a constructive and meaningful structure.
The irony is that it took the entente cordiale through the newly-formed EPCR and Champions Cup to bring this healthy situation about. Today alone in the six games - sensibly kicking off concurrently (despite the unquestionable excitement of the final series of staggered Six Nations games this year) - all but one (Edinburgh at home to Leinster, which depends on results elsewhere) have a look of intrigue about them.
Call me old-school but that is the essence of what sport should be about - that journey into the unknown where almost anything is possible.
Here we are on the 22nd weekend of the 22-match series and we still don't know where the venues for the semi-finals will be. We do know the venue for the final and while I am a fully signed-up fan of the prototype professional stadium that is the Kingspan I, like many, have mixed views on the principle of declaring a final venue so far in advance.
The logic and practical reasons for doing so are understandable in terms of planning but if the bottom line (as at Twickenham in the inaugural Champions Cup Final) is a stadium some way short of capacity then clearly it detracts from the atmosphere and occasion.
That said, I suspect Ulster folk will still turn out in force even if the final is minus a home or Irish (Munster) presence. And Kingspan is also much easier to fill than Twickenham!
While just a single point separates the four sides still in contention for the top honour, you would suspect it is the White Knights (despite last weekend's late draw) who have the biggest mountain to climb.
Bear in mind there is just a seven-day turn-around to the semi-final - which begs the obvious question as to how far Neil Doak and Jonathan Bell are prepared to go at Scotstoun in search of victory.
And even that would guarantee nothing should the Ospreys (at the Sportsground) and Munster (in Irish Independent Park) bring in a five-point return.
Connacht still have that seventh place play-off aspiration on the assumption the Scarlets wrap up sixth spot in Treviso. The Sportsground should be rocking with seventh for Connacht and a home semi-final for the Ospreys still to play for.
Even at the bottom with Treviso ahead by three from Zebre (who travel to soulless Cardiff), the final-day outcome will determine which club represents Italy in next season's Champions Cup - on the assumption they settle their debts, of course.
The Italian issue is a topic for another day but as of now they are doing little to enhance the credibility of this fast-developing competition.
With little confidence then we're going for Treviso to finish ahead of Zebre, the Scarlets to finish sixth and Leinster to show sufficient pride at Murrayfield to open the door for Pat Lam by way of a trip to David Humphreys's Gloucester.
On the assumption that Ulster will give it a reasonable shot in Glasgow, thereby cancelling each other out, we suspect it may be the Liberty Stadium and Thomond Park for the semi-finals. In other words, only Munster of the top four to record a four-try winning bonus. Maybe!
Anthony Foley might not agree but last week's Kingspan outcome was a fair result and for a very good reason over and above the obvious.
Nigel Owens is the best referee in the world by a distance but in Belfast when sending Iain Henderson to the line he fell victim to the moment and to the laws.
He pulled a red on the basis of what he was seeing on the big screen and (we presume) on what was being said in his ear by the TMO.
Rugby has been bold in its desire to borrow from other sports and for that World Rugby/IRB deserves immense credit (if only Sepp Blatter and FIFA were of a similarly open mind). Although a little laboured at times, its use of technology has enhanced that sense of fairness. There is one way in which it could develop that principle even further and here Rugby League has it right.
In League when a referee sees what he believes to be an act of foul play, but is not 100pc certain, he has the option of highlighting the incident immediately to independent commissioners.
After the final whistle the adjudicators can go through the incident with a fine-tooth comb to identify malicious intent or illegality.
In putting the alleged offender 'on report' players in League know that if they are found guilty they will likely receive an extended ban. It will not eradicate nasty intent entirely but would go a long way towards it.
A yellow card for Henderson (thereby removing him for the final phase anyway) would have been more appropriate given the uncertainty in the moment but the 'on report' facility would have ensured the fairest follow-on.
In overturning the red card the Pro12 disciplinary committee got it right. A simple agreed signal by the referee (in League it's an arms-crossed X) informing the crowd of an 'on report' decision would defuse the heat of the moment and make for a fairer judgment all round.
The Henderson call was a definite case in point.