Friday 23 August 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Lack of interest in play-offs an indictment of PRO14's place in the rugby world'

Munster supporters in Thomond Park
Munster supporters in Thomond Park
Expansion: PRO 14 boss Martin Anayi. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

If the Guinness PRO14 functioned as a normal competition, the upcoming weekend would be one of the biggest of the rugby season. In reality, the quarter-finals are proving to be a tough sell from a public that still struggles to engage with the tournament.

Munster are so concerned about the slow uptake of tickets for their clash with Benetton that they've had to innovate to offer a 'kids-go-free' option at Thomond Park.

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In Belfast, Ulster are hoping the prospect of Rory Best's last home game and the attraction of taking on a rival province can shift tickets but again, sales have been slow.

That's despite the stakes being high for the teams involved; Connacht may have won the tournament in 2016 but Munster have not lifted a trophy since 2011 and Ulster's wait goes back to 2006.

As well as a tangible reward for their season, the clubs are also on the first step of their 2019/'20 European journey. PRO14 performance establishes Champions Cup seeding in the next season and all the provinces could do with embellishing their prospects of succeeding in a post-World Cup tournament by avoiding their fellow big-guns.

The fans will tune in when that competition gets going in October, but for now they are less than fully engaged. The season is a long and expensive one for people who attend weekly and fork out for television subscriptions.

The bank holiday weekend is an issue, as is the fact that these games are not covered by season tickets. In Munster's case, they've had less than a week to promote the fixture.

They're all valid reasons, but empty seats in May are not a good look for an ambitious, but flawed league.

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With chief executive Martin Anayi leading the charge, the PRO14 has worked hard to grow its revenue streams and has succeeded in bringing in more money since expanding into South Africa and in selling the broadcast rights.

But, like Super Rugby, the geographical spread and convoluted format have weakened the competition.

As it stands, we still don't officially know how many teams will be in the PRO14 next year. Nor do we know the format or the make-up of the conferences.

Reports in South Africa last month suggested that another expansion is on the cards, but those have been played down by the organisers.

Even if the same 14 sides line up at the outset, the conferences will be re-jigged just as fans were getting used to them.

Splitting the league in two was necessary, but the games between teams in different conferences have been reduced in importance. Conversely, the inter-conference games gave the potential for cross-border rivalries. After two seasons, the goal-posts will change yet again.

The move into the Southern Hemisphere has brought in new money, but has hardly been a success.

The Cheetahs did well in year one but then had their best assets stripped, while the Southern Kings have added nothing.

Springboks are hard to find across the two squads, but that is in keeping with a league in which the best players feature little.

Essentially, the PRO14 is a league run by the unions whose best interests are served by keeping front-line internationals on ice.

All four Irish provinces have used 50 or more players this season and for long stretches the PRO14 goes on without its leading lights.

From a player welfare standpoint, this is the correct model. In contrast, the longer-established and more prestigious English Premiership and Top 14 flog their players relentlessly.

Few complain when Ireland do well or when the provinces arrive into Europe fresh and ready, but the season suffers on a whole.

There has been well-informed speculation about the private equity firm CVC taking a stake in the PRO14. They have already secured the Premiership and could look to package the sale of broadcast rights together and merge the tournaments at the knock-out stage.

Private ownership could change the complexion of the competition, but at some stage broadcasters will demand a return on their investment, which would mean the best players playing.

In some form or another, the PRO14 has been around for 18 seasons and yet it seems like it is still searching for its place in the world.

With Benetton the first Italian team to make the play-offs and Connacht back in the knock-outs, there are good stories to be told. Celtic Park will make for an exciting final venue, particularly if Glasgow make it.

But the success of a league cannot be defined by one day in May. It has to hold fans' attention from week one and right now it's struggling.

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