Wednesday 24 July 2019

Jim Glennon: Shake-up gave us a contest to remember

Munster's CJ Stander is tackled by Dragons' Richie Rees
Munster's CJ Stander is tackled by Dragons' Richie Rees

Jim Glennon

Twelve months ago the future of European rugby was up in the air. The much-loved Heineken Cup was no more and the money-men behind the scenes were assuming centre-stage, flashing their wallets as they emerged from the wings.

 There was a sense of fear as to what the changes would mean for European rugby and how the game would look after the rules of commerce had prevailed.

Twelve months on and, however inadvertently, one of the consequences of the shake-up has been the most exciting climax to the Pro12 regular season in recent memory, and probably the most interesting since the introduction of play-offs.

Simultaneous kick-offs in all of yesterday's final round of games ensured an intriguing afternoon. The game of the round was Ulster's trip to Glasgow. The league's two most consistent teams have been steadily building towards a trophy, and there's a sense that the time has come to deliver. The home team won with some ease, but next Friday's semi-final at Scotstoun could well reward Ulster coach Neil Doak for his controversial decision to rest most of his frontliners.

As expected, Munster secured the bonus-point win against the Dragons for a Thomond Park semi-final against Ospreys, who came up short in their search for the bonus in Galway against a Connacht team still harbouring designs on their own place in Europe.

And still this competition holds a strange place in the hearts of Irish supporters. A combination of guaranteed annual entry to the tournament for all bar Connacht, no relegation in the domestic competition, central contracting and the player-welfare scheme provided the provinces with an advantageous platform from which to launch their annual European campaigns. The format favoured Ireland but in the words of Yeats, "all has changed, changed utterly". Some of the gloss has gone from the Champions Cup and with progress to the latter stages now more challenging, the Pro12 may well emerge from the shadows.

Ulster and Munster, both eliminated early from Europe, had no option but to pin their colours to the league. Pro12 victory would not even come close to winning the ultimate prize in northern hemisphere club rugby, but the feat of finishing top of the pile after 22 regular season and two play-off games is worthy of acclaim.

Admittedly, at times, the standard leaves a lot to be desired, but the league has benefited from the new qualification system for the Champions Cup. With merit-based qualification and guaranteed qualification for at least one team per country, there are more real contests. The irony isn't lost either on Leinster, for so many years the driver of standards in the Pro12, finding themselves watching on from the periphery as the league moves towards its conclusion. Their non-performance against Treviso in the penultimate round made for difficult viewing. It made too for a disappointing farewell night for Gordon D'Arcy and Shane Jennings.

Jennings was forthright in his comments in relation to the younger squad members and those called up to perform in the absence of international colleagues. In painting a picture of players seemingly content to bask in the "reflected glory" of previous triumphs, he advanced the view that some possibly lacked an understanding of what was required to win at the top level.

Jennings, a leader who never gave less than his best, mentioned the squad are "hurting". If Leinster are to return to the levels previously scaled, that hurt must be channelled into next season.

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