Sunday 19 November 2017

Neil Francis: PRO12 expansion will only work if new boys are up to it

PRO12 has to solve Italy problem before it can move into new territory

Conor Murray in action for Munster against Connacht in yesterday’s PRO12 match. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Murray in action for Munster against Connacht in yesterday’s PRO12 match. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The Guinness Pro12 regular season finished yesterday with, well not a dull thud, but not exactly "this is Gareth Edwards, a dramatic start, what a score" either.

Here is the thing: As a staple it is not that bad. If you had to watch the Top 14 a dozen weeks in a row or the Aviva Premiership, you might not complain for too much longer. The standard and the quality measures up so why the headlong push to put some 'go faster' stripes on the competition? For what it is, it serves its purpose. If they get the dream final they will fill the Aviva, even if the teams might not be able to field the eight Lions who are due to tour.

Why the hastiness to big up or sex up the tournament?

A few years after I retired from playing with Leinster, I went to Donnybrook to watch a match. At half-time about a dozen cailíns came out onto the pitch for some half-time entertainment. I was surprised that most of them lasted the 10-minute interlude. They might have been better off doing a few laps of the pitch to get in shape. There were a few girls who were fit and could dance and there were a few roly-polys who could not dance - and we were still a few years away from tactical substitutions.

Somebody had decided that with the advent of professionalism rugby would become more than just rugby, it would be entertainment. The patrons would get not just rugby but razzmatazz as well. Who, I wonder, was responsible for pom-pom girls at half-time in Donnybrook?

Was it the case that with a new departure into professionalism, girls in leotards dancing to loud rock music on a mucky pitch in November was the result of some joined-up thinking? The people who turned up to watch the match were there to watch rugby. The girls disappeared under a wave of bemusement and indifference.

The Pro12 had a fantastic competition last year. This year has been decent and we have some decent semis to sustain us - and probably a very decent final. The league has a very good sponsor, a very good fit for the competition. Gates are good, crowds are enthusiastic. There are 21 Lions travelling to New Zealand this summer from the Pro12. The Test side will be mostly made up of Pro12 players. Apart from revenues, where is the gap? In terms of where it is going or the direction it seems to be seeking, what's the rush? Where is the fire?

During the break in the summer of 2016 there was a bubble of excitement - American partners, a new franchise from the USA. Corporate buzzwords just exploded out of the screen. Synergies. (I love synergies.) Grow the brand. 'The broader narrative' - which was Ian Ritchie speak. Revenue streams - important! Television and media partners - very important. These guys talked so fast that listening to them was like trying to read Playboy magazine with your wife turning the pages.

Big market, huge potential, big revenue add-ons, whole new audience. This brave new direction. I just couldn't take it all in and I've only been concussed four times.

The fledgling American professional league of just five teams collapsed in 2016 and did so in spectacular style. Suddenly we hear that something definite will happen. A new franchise in Houston, a new franchise in Philadelphia or New York, the Canadians could also put together a team in Montreal or Toronto. Apparently, NBC had an interest, so all we needed was the Wright Brothers to make this thing fly.

The difficulty here is with the bones of the crashed pro-league. Potential law suits from the original stakeholders. Start a new entity in another league and suddenly the writs start flying. So nothing is going to happen now or next year, but certainly the year after.

But is this not pom-pom girl thinking? Got to have pom-pom girls. The league has to grow because of the English and French hegemony, so we go west. The league has two shite teams in it already. Imagine a team from Houston coming to Thomond. Munster 93, The Houston Good Ol' Boys 3. Houston, we've got a problem.

Expansion is a worthy aspiration but only if the teams are good enough. Even if you packed a New York team full of American Eagles which was filled with a goodly portion of Pacific Islanders they would be shite. Even Treviso and Zebre would duff them. New television audiences and revenue streams are one thing - being competitive is entirely another.

Zebre, who would be tabled for extinction, still manage to pull off a few notables every season. It can't be easy being them. They would, however, have a ten-year start on any putative American franchise. Sometimes you do eventually get there. This would be Conor O'Shea's idea as he has gone on the offensive with presentations and meetings to try and save Zebre. He knows that if Italy loses one of their two Pro12 teams, their goose is cooked.

It brings us down to the kernel of the issue: What is the purpose of the Pro12? It is to prepare our players to play international rugby by providing a meaningful competition to play in. At all stages we must ask the question: whose purpose does it serve?

If the Italians lose a franchise their national team, which is already struggling. is gone. If everyone biffs the Italians by too much then the Six Nations diminishes its value.

We are all aware of the travails of the Super Rugby competition. Expansion has not worked and there is some surgery coming. The Cheetahs and the Southern Kings CEO Tony McKeever has apparently held talks with Martin Anayi, CEO of Pro12 Rugby.

Where would the value be to either party to try and advance their inclusion into an expanded Pro12 if their inclusion in the Super 18 patently hasn't worked? What could South Africans bring to the party that would enhance the league?

Whatever about the seven-and-a-half-hour journey to New York or 10 hours to Houston the logistics for Port Elizabeth would be just crazy. Joxer may have gone to Stuttgart but it would take him 197 hours to get the 15,136kms down the Trans Sahara highway N1, or 16 hours on a flight. The PRL have invited them into the Anglo Welsh league . . . woo hoo!

We hear that Hans Peter Wild, the 75-year-old Capri-Sun billionaire, is looking to take out Thomas Savare's shares in Stade Francais. The German entrepreneur also set up a professional German rugby club, Heidelberger RK, and has greater ambitions.

The possibility now of a German or even Spanish franchise coming on board is on the table. I would be fairly certain that if rugby was the number one sport in Germany then New Zealand would be looking ruefully at how it should be done and what they need to do to catch up with German team work, athleticism and ruthless instinct.

Rugby, however, is not the number one sport in Germany and you and I will be in the grave long before the eight nations becomes the nine nations championship.

Let me say it again: expansion is great, but whose interests does it serve? Leinster versus Munster on the 27th of this month. Anyone?

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