italians add life to party
The Magners League project has come a long way, but it's not the finished article, says Brendan Fanning
W hat started nine years ago in the prefab in Donnybrook came of age in a banqueting suite of the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff last week.
Back in August 2001, Syd Millar told us that he had no doubt a sponsor would soon hitch its wagon to this brave new departure of Celtic Rugby. He had to wait five years until the Irish, Scots and Welsh figured out what it was they themselves wanted from the competition. Only then did cider, the drink once considered unsuitable to stock in many public houses, finally come in from the fields and cosy up to Celtic rugby.
Magners are now into their second term as sponsors, and having suffered a bit on the first lap as the league slowly introduced basic essentials such as television match officials and citing commissioners, now they are getting some mileage for their investment.
No less than seven broadcasters (three of them divisions of BBC) will plaster the brand about the place, and with 12 teams playing from next weekend until May 2011, at last this looks like a competition with the nuts and bolts to make a real impact on European rugby.
There are some roadblocks still to be shifted however. Until they introduce independent disciplinary hearings, then Celtic Rugby leave themselves open to accusations that players can walk free if there is a pressing engagement -- like a Six Nations game -- around the corner. This is something they are actively considering, and they are looking at the costs and logistics of quickly assembling people to sit on disciplinary panels. In truth, they should have finished all the legwork by now and be rolling it out next month instead of later in the season, as is likely.
And until they can do something about the woeful optics of tuning into games from Scotland and seeing prairies of space where people should be -- in fairness, we wonder if Swansea's Liberty Stadium is so named for the number of fans it sets free rather than captures -- then it will suffer by comparison with England's Premiership. And it is always looking over its shoulder at that competition where the quality of the action is often camouflaged by the impact of the event.
We were told at the launch last week that Glasgow's attendances were up by 27.8 per cent on the previous season. Stunning, except that 27.8 per cent of not very much is still not very much, and only once did they break the 8,000 barrier -- a milestone for them -- last season. Up the road in Edinburgh, meanwhile, where at Murrayfield games are literally cheered to the echo, they frequently had close to only 2,000 coming through the gate.
We asked Glasgow coach Sean Lineen what it would take to get fans in Scotland to respond to the improving quality of the rugby. "A roof," he said. Fair enough.
Now that the league has been moved into the same administrative house as the Six Nations and Lions operations perhaps they will have access to fresh ideas on how to mobilise those in Scotland and Wales who come out in droves over the Christmas holiday and then disappear for the rest of the season. And maybe they might have a line too on the league's awards list, the first of which was unveiled in Cardiff last week.
Among the standard fare of players' player and try of the season etc we had a chairman's award, which freed up the outgoing John Hussey to indulge himself. And indulge himself he did by giving it to Michael Bradley. It was embarrassing to triumph the efforts of a man whose team has been rooted to the foot of the table for most of his tenure in Galway. We all recognise that the battle out west is only fought uphill, but living a hard life shouldn't be translated into something it isn't.
That aside, Hussey can be well pleased with his contribution to the cause. It required patience and endurance to get the Italian teams into the fold. Like the maturation of the league itself, it will take a while for Benetton Treviso and Aironi Rugby to find their feet. Which is not to say that they won't dish out a couple of kickings en route.
Listening to Aironi back-rower Josh Sole talk about the scale of the operation over there, it was hard not to think back to 1995 when Ireland went for a warm-up in Treviso, pre-World Cup, and got third-degree burns from the natives who were well ahead of us. Based in Viadana where the council are upgrading the stadium for them, this new franchise has been writing cheques steadily over the last few months, busily bulking up.
The poster boys are hardened Azzurri like Marco Bortolami, Salvatore Perugini and Fabio Ongaro, but the recruitment of out-half Ludovic Mercier will mean pain for some team who gets on the wrong side of the Aironi pack.
The former Gloucester man is heading for his 34th birthday but is still one of the great kickers of a rugby ball. And will that Aironi pack be looking for scalps? "I think that's always the way with Italy in that every time we play an international game in the Six Nations it's always: 'Well, Italy have a forward pack and stuff,'" says Sole. "I don't believe that that stuff exists as much as it did four or five years ago. Now under Nick Mallett and certain guys we've had -- like Craig Gower coming into the national team -- we've started to play a lot more rugby. I know Nick wants us to.
"We sometimes don't always do it on the field the way he wants us to and we've got to improve on that. I can speak from the Aironi point of view and we're going to try and play quite positive. I know our coach Franco Bernini wants to play an open game and we've got some good young Italians and foreigners out wide who need to get the ball and it wouldn't be much fun for them standing in the cold not touching it."
The measure of their progress will be when they can win without dealing exclusively in biff, for that sort of campaign can't be sustained over a league season. There are two reasons why Italy in the Six Nations and their club teams in the Heineken Cup have been brawny: they like smashing people; and they're afraid that if they open up they'll be filleted.
You can't go from playing wholly negative rugby week in, week out in their domestic club competition and suddenly adjust to the space and pace of Heineken and Test rugby. Which goes to the heart of why the Italians are in this competition now: it gives them the platform to get regular competition at a high level. That, and the cash to develop their squads, is what will enhance their contribution to the Magners and ultimately the Six Nations.
Treviso are the ones with the history in Italy, but you suspect the new combo in Aironi will be the team to make the most noise in year one. If they are successful, it will be interesting to see how it mobilises the fan base in the catchment cities of Parma (population 165,000), Reggio Emilia (142,000) and Mantova (48,000). A bit of success would go a long way in Italy.
"Yeah, the Italians are big on winning and they're hard on you if you don't win," Sole says. "At Aironi Rugby, we've all had our goals handed to us and been told where we should be but for me personally I think if we can come seventh, sixth or eighth, or something like that, it'd be outstanding for a first season, especially for these young guys coming in. I think we're going to go okay."
Interestingly, their first home game, in round two, is against Ulster -- the big spenders in our part of the world. The arrival over the summer of South African heavy hitters Pedrie Wannenburg, Ruan Pienaar and Johan Muller is a throwback to the days of Alan Solomons when he turned Ravenhill into Springbok City. David Humphreys is more likely to get the balance right between stocking the team with stout Ulstermen and bolstering them with imports. And, to his credit, he has managed to wangle the cash from the IRFU to float the boat up there again. So much so that they were being referred to last week as the Manchester City of the Magners League.
"It's the first time I have heard us described as that," he says. "We believe that we have recruited very well this year. In my view, I think very strongly that this is the best Ulster squad that has been assembled. However, history has proven right across every sport that you can't buy success.
"And as much as we would like to think there will be short-term results we also recognise that it may take a little bit longer to bring these people in and gel them together. But there's no doubt that the players that have come in are proven international quality."
There is no stomach up north anymore for big spending followed by failure so Humphreys, and his coach Brian McLaughlin, need a big season, which is not the case with the other three provinces. For the first time since Ireland got out of the blocks with the Triple Crown success in 2004, there is a realism around the place that this is not a great time to be a provincial coach.
The failure of RWC 2007 has put a premium on not failing in 2011. All eggs are being cleaned and packed into that basket. Already front-row injuries have struck down Connacht -- where Eric Elwood's refreshing candour will be a nice change -- and Leinster, while the delayed return of Paul O'Connell, and the ongoing doubts about Keith Earls, have tempered things in Munster, for whom the real crisis is coming in a couple of seasons when the seniors step back.
It was interesting then last week to read Paul McNaughton's comments about front-line international players being freed up for Magners duty far earlier than planned. It appeared like a memo from head office to correct the impression that they didn't feel the pain of the provinces. As with that new dawn back in Donnybrook in 2001, we are keen to see how it works out.