Lights, camera, action . . .
Connacht's rude health can't mask the need for serious surgery on an ailing Pro12 league
On Saturday afternoon, at what almost certainly will be a sunny Stadio Monigo in Treviso, Connacht will do the Guinness Pro12 a big favour. And win.
This is a league struggling on several fronts, so the prospect of another chapter of The West is Awake is just what the editor ordered. More 'full house' signs on the College Road; the Clan Stand literally shaking; and a home team playing a brand of rugby that is easy on the eye and hard on the opposition. If only we had more of this.
Elsewhere, the landscape is fairly ugly, rendered even more unattractive by the juxtaposition of the Premiership in England and the Top 14 in France. In Wembley last weekend Saracens beat Harlequins in front of a crowd of over 82,000, the fifth time these teams have hit that figure since 2011.
On the same weekend the Pro12 returned an aggregate of just over half that figure from its round of six matches. Even allowing for a smaller market, only Connacht sold out. And in Wales that weekend we had that familiar, empty feeling: great swathes of unoccupied seats in both the Liberty Stadium and Parc y Scarlets.
We remember a conversation with Ronan O'Gara in 2009, not long after Llanelli's new stadium opened, when he was effusive about the quality of the surface there. "The place may be half empty but it's by far the best pitch in the league," he said.
Not anymore it's not. Travel a few hundred miles north to Glasgow and you'll find the sand pit that is Scotstoun, a nice ground which is a welcome change from the awfulness of its predecessor, Firhill. In fairness to Glasgow, they were dealt an unfortunate hand by Storm Frank last Christmas, and next season will have laid an artificial surface. Nevertheless, it feeds the perception of a facility that is sub-standard, while less than an hour away in Edinburgh is the cavernous Murrayfield, which is mostly unused.
The aggregate is a league that is hard to dress up. Talk to the folks in Sky and they will tell you that while they are quietly content with the viewing figures - a Pro12 round pulls in circa 500,000 across the range of broadcasters (including BBC Alba, NI and Wales; plus TG4, and RAI in Italy) - the optics of empty stadia are awful. They do their best to camouflage the emptiness, but it's like using Band-Aids on an elephant.
Sky's modus operandi is to accentuate the positive to the point where you're supposed to feel privileged you've tuned in. They struggle to toe the line here though with the refereeing standards. In Leinster last weekend - an RDS where again there was lots of unused space - we had the bizarre example of Marius Mitrea's unique perspective on Fergus McFadden's dangerous tackle on Edinburgh's Damien Hoyland.
Mitrea is by no means the worst ref on the circuit, but the breakdown between himself and the TMO on the night was bordering on farce. Sometimes with TMOs you suspect that if the ref suggested the culprit had just dropped out of a mad dog's rear end, the man in the control van would reply: "I agree!"
The mess was cleaned up by the disciplinary process, but the spillage in the first place seemed almost appropriate because it happened in the Pro12 and not its nearest neighbour, the Premiership.
The recurring theme in the Pro12 is that the frequent lack of neutrality among referees is a critical roadblock to its quality. Clearly it's not ideal, but when you have great yawning gaps in the refereeing fraternities in both Scotland and Italy then this is what you get. And it's far better to have a decent referee who may be saddled with being born in the same country as one of the teams involved in the match, than a crap one who is handicapped primarily by his awfulness.
The man who has recently enough stepped forward to carry this load is Pro12 chief executive Martin Anayi (pictured), who played the game himself, and whose business background is most recently in motorsport. He is unfailingly positive.
"There is great drama around the top four now and great drama around the top six, and that conversation is around Europe and qualifying for the Champions Cup next season," he says. "What I would love to have is teams wanting to get into the top six because they want to be in the Pro12 play-off itself. That's the rationale."
Since his appointment last autumn Anayi has been around the houses talking to the chief executives of his constituent clubs, and those we spoke to believe his positivity is justified. He is proposing fundamental changes to the competition structure in the hope of raising its quality and profile.
Top of the list is getting some light through the Test windows of November and February/March when the marquee names move to the international circus. What is left is a different product presented by lower profile players, and the tournament suffers. His proposal is not to stop playing in those windows, rather to change the competition itself. So the lesser lights still get to shine, but on a different stage, one that would have its own sponsor - a not dissimilar set-up the LV Cup (Anglo Welsh).
"I think it's a great pathway," he says. "My suggestion to them (the clubs) is that that pathway should probably sit outside of our tournament, or shouldn't be the main part of our tournament, because when that happens the tournament itself becomes a development pathway. And that's not what it's supposed to be. That's not saying that these games are not valuable games, but in the context of our tournament they aren't the level we're looking for. We're looking for premium level, international-heavy matches which is what drives traffic in viewership on telly, but also through the gate. People want to see the top players playing as often as possible."
Interestingly, across the water the Anglo Welsh tournament is scheduled to run in this gap again next season but our understanding is that Premier Rugby would be open to the idea of looking at a potential tie-up with the Pro12 thereafter. In any case it will be 2017/'18 before, or if, Anayi's proposals would see the light of day.
The most radical of these would be to reconfigure the league from a straightforward programme with end-of-season play-offs - he's amenable to the French system of six teams in the play-offs rather than four - to a conference-style operation. He is reluctant to get into the detail beyond promising that it would open the door to lobbing in an extra round of derby games.
"We are not a domestic league," he says. "We're a cross-border competition that lends itself to conferences and pools. I do believe that. It's slightly more complicated but overall I think in the course of the season people will love it because it's just one extra round."
That extra round will be in a reduced league programme if the new competition comes in during the Test windows. If it were to usher out the B&I League, then it would be a useful exercise in itself.
We've long advocated that less is more in the international game, and perhaps that idea is filtering down to the tier below it. If it gets more bums on seats then it will be worth the effort, for despite Connacht giving the league a makeover, surgery looks like the only option.
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