The European rugby season commences in mid August when the Top 14 kicks off. The season ahead will be the first with the new European structure and the ‘Champions Cup’. However, the tournament that faces its biggest season yet is the Pro12.
Some major changes will take effect from this season, and they need to invigorate the competition to guarantee its survival. Otherwise, the Pro12 may very well find itself on the scrap heap. This season the league must show serious signs of growth, or face serious questions over its future.
This season really is make or break for the Pro12. Guinness coming on board as the new title sponsor is a massive boost for a league that did not have any title sponsor for its first five seasons. The combined marketing resources of the Pro12 and the Guinness brand-under Diageo- should give the league a much-needed boost. The league really must use this boost to put significant effort into improving attendances, with last season’s league averaging of just over 8,000 per match, lagging behind the Aviva Premiership and Top 14 by 4,000 and 5,000 respectively.
The Champions Cup has at least required a semi-meritocratic qualification system from the league, therefore increasing the importance of each match, and hopefully attendances will grow correspondingly.
An even greater coup for the league is its broadcast on Sky Sports from next season. While Sky will broadcast 33 matches, the Pro12 will still enjoy the benefit of having some matches available free-to-air. The Sky deal is the best thing to happen to the league in its short history, with their presence in the market challenging other broadcasters to improve their service.
Sky did so much to make the Heineken Cup the special competition that it was, and will no doubt transform the viewing experience of the league. Also consider that Sky are being increasingly challenged by rivals BT sport. BT have the rights to the Aviva Premiership, and also broadcast the Top 14 with Setanta, so the Pro 12 will be the only major European league that Sky will broadcast. With Sky fully on board, the league can only improve.
Sky’s involvement also marks an end of the always frustrating, often farcical nature of the league’s broadcast in recent years. A degree of certainty is offered to fans, with the days of frantically searching through channels such as TG4 and S4C at an end. It also appears to be the beginning of the end of listening to commentary in Irish or Welsh, which had previously acted as a deterrent to casual rugby fans.
Sky’s involvement will increase competition amongst broadcasters and will hopefully increase the number of cameras being used at matches. This should ensure that the scenes during last year’s Glasgow-v-Munster semi-final will not be repeated. On that day, Italian referee Marius Mitrea asked for the TMO’s judgment on a Simon Zebo scoring attempt. The resulting situation was scarcely believable for a match of such magnitude, a semi-final of one of the world’s biggest club competitions.
The TMO could not adjudicate upon Zebo’s action due to a lack of an in-goal camera angle. The TMO’s angles are provided by the broadcasting stations, and Sky’s involvement should erase this problem, through their own spending and increased competition.
While the aforementioned aspects are big opportunities for growth, serious threats still loom large over the future of the Pro12. The enormous spending power of the Top 14 is an obvious threat, while enterprising club owners in England are also starting to pump money into their playing squads.
Bath owner Craig Gold is greatly improving the club; while West Country rivals Gloucester have alone acquired John Afoa, Greg Laidlaw and Richard Hibbard from Pro12 clubs. Losing such players is a great blow to the league. Whilst the Pro12 has signed a deal with Sky, the Top 14 have their own new deal. Signed with Canal-Plus, it is worth over €70m a season for the next five years, an increase of around €40m a year from their previous deal.
While a player exodus matching that of the Welsh regions in recent years is a major worry, the exit of the Welsh clubs themselves is also a serious threat to the future of the league.
Chaos currently rules supreme in Welsh rugby. The mainly financial argument between the Union and the regions has dragged on for months, and Cardiff Blues (in solidarity with the other regions) are threatening to refuse to take up the services of Sam Warburton (the WRU’s only centrally contracted player) for next season. As of now, the Wales captain is contracted to the Union, yet effectively without a club to play for.
During the negotiations for the new Champions Cup, the Welsh regions seriously considered jumping ship and establishing an Anglo-Welsh league. With such a player drain combined with worrying finances, many in Welsh rugby believe it best to join the Aviva Premiership. They foresee more money and a higher playing standard in a 16-team Premiership would keep more Welsh players in Wales.
Without the Welsh regions, this writer sees little benefit in the Irish provinces remaining in a league with the Scots and Italians, so would be forced to look elsewhere for regular meaningful and challenging fixtures. The Italian clubs also threatened to leave during this season, although this hardly sent shockwaves across European rugby. However, the exit of the Welsh regions would almost certainly spell the end of the league, and take us ever closer to a European-wide league.
Therefore, the first season of the Guinness Pro12 must be a successful one. It must be bigger and better than any season before. The future of the Welsh regions in the league must be put beyond doubt. The league must be solidified. Most of all, the overall standard must be driven up, and the new European qualification system, while far from perfect, will at least reduce the amount of dead rubbers.
If none of this happens, the player drain might spread to Ireland, and the league could be critically damaged. Signs of a Pro12 with a better standard and better attendances must begin to be seen this season. It is a season ahead with challenges and worries, but also of great promise and great opportunity, and an improved European Cup to look forward to. Whatever happens, this season promises to define this competition’s future.
David Higgins, Pundit Arena.