Monday 23 April 2018

Tony Ward: Merging Treviso and Zebre would revive Italy and boost PRO12

 

A combined Zebre/Treviso presence in the PRO12 could ultimately be beneficial to Italian head coach Conor O’Shea. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/Getty Images)
A combined Zebre/Treviso presence in the PRO12 could ultimately be beneficial to Italian head coach Conor O’Shea. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/Getty Images)
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Over the weekend SANZAAR announced the reduction of Super Rugby teams from 18 teams to 15.

Originally the tournament - still producing the best rugby outside the Test arena by a mile - was Super 10, then 12, then 14 on to 15 and finally where it is now at 18.

As a business model it is failing badly, but if you could combine the quality of Super Rugby with the tribal intensity underpinning the Champions Cup, you would have the perfect tournament - and effectively there would be little need for Test rugby!

Whatever else, that option will never be on the table.

But what the latest experiment in the southern hemisphere does highlight is that, 22 years after the game went open, professional rugby has a way to go before even settling down.

Skilful

Players are fitter, stronger and much more skilful now than pre-95, but quite whether it is a better game or, in modern parlance a better product, is an issue for another day.

At this distance it looks like the Kings (effectively Eastern Province) and the Cheetahs (predominantly the Orange Free State) as well as either Western Force (Western Australia) or the Melbourne Rebels could bite the dust. That will mean organisations closing down, with people (not just players) losing jobs.

But the format does need fixing or else Super Rugby is unsustainable. The bottom line will see the survival of the fittest; the weakest will go to that wall. Such is the way of the world, as rugby union is fast learning.

There are lessons for those running professional rugby in this part of the world.

In global terms, rugby union is still a relatively minor activity certainly when compared to soccer. But it is growing, and bringing Italy into the Five Nations at the turn of the century was a step in the right direction.

However, I don't believe there is a case for promotion/relegation to and from the Six Nations, for the simple reason that emerging nations like Georgia, Romania or the Iberian countries (currently making their way in Sevens) are not yet ready.

In fact, 17 years on, it is questionable if the Italians are yet ready, particularly at club level.

Quite what purpose is served through the Italian teams finishing 11th and 12th in the Guinness PRO12 almost every year is beyond me.

As it happens, Zebre have beaten Connacht and the Dragons in successive weeks but that is very much the exception and clearly not the norm.

How demoralising must it to be to be thumped almost every week, especially for the Italian internationals, who have to somehow raise themselves for the Test windows.

I want Italy to remain and become a much more competitive force in the Six Nations - I have coaching and playing links with Rugby Amatori Milano going back to the early '80s.

But surely the Argentinian model of one team (the Jaguares) representing a potentially very powerful rugby nation in Super Rugby is the route for the Italians to go now.

How much better could a combined Zebre/Treviso presence be in the PRO12? And just how beneficial to Azzurri coach Conor O'Shea?

The Italian club team would effectively be their national side, bolstered by some top-class imports.

No doubt there would be political shenanigans, but how much better would it also be for the Pro12 to have a meaningful Italian presence compared to the token sides we have now?

And who would fill the void and bring the competition back to 12 teams? I would love to see an effort made to grow the professional game in Scotland by reviving the Borders team.

It might be hard for the younger generation to believe, but Border rugby used to be to Scotland what the Valleys and Limerick were to the Welsh and Irish respectively.

Structures

I still believe the Newport Gwent Dragons will, with the right support structures, come good and that Wales can carry four professional entities, just like we can.

Although the Jaguares may not have hit the competitive heights they demand, it is only their second season of Super Rugby, you can bet your bottom peso that the Pumas' strength in depth is already increasing.

I have little doubt that the same will eventually apply to Japan's Sunwolves, though it will take longer to put in place.

Just how good might Italian rugby be if something similar were attempted here? The time for EPCR, Pro12 and the Italian Federation to act is now.

Irish Independent

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