Despite improved exposure under the tenure of the Rabo Direct sponsors, the Pro 12 continues to stutter as a league, and there’s not one quick explanation as to why.
You can argue there just aren’t big enough teams there to draw the crowds. The Italian sides especially being such new entities never have much of a pull on the casual fan.
Officiating is another. Whether it is simply this current crop of referees is below par, or that all of the unions involved need to work together so that all referees are better monitored by the same criteria, the lack of consistency from the Pro 12 officials is sometimes maddening to behold. There will never be a game where a referee doesn’t make a mistake, yet as long as the mistakes are applied equally it isn’t so much of a problem. At refereeing courses consistency is one of the main values talked about, yet it is one of the key failings of officials in the Pro 12. It makes it frustrating for viewers, supporters and players alike and until it improves it will be a continuous frustration that is turning people away from the game.
The lack of competitiveness is another factor. The introduction of the play offs has added a much needed incentive for the top half of the table, yet the bottom half are safe in the knowledge they cannot be relegated, and that nearly all are guaranteed entry to the top flight of European club rugby competitions without the need to qualify. Change the criteria to qualify then there wouldn’t be so many dead rubber games. Every match would mean something.
This lack of competitiveness has seen the league be exploited by some, particularly the Irish provinces, as being a development competition. It is a turn off for many fans to turn out to watch their side play on occasion an effective visiting second string team. Player rotation is a must but the way the Irish sides exploit it mean that yet again, too many fixtures in the competition are not seen as important. There is no draw, no pull, and no added edge to secure the floating fan.
The lack of history is something that at least can be cured by time. Already rivalries are forming between the likes of Scarlets and Munster or Ulster, or Ospreys and Leinster. As it stands now, the opposition clubs in the Pro 12 are simply not a big enough pull for Welsh crowds as say an English club would be, yet as the competition grows, that at least can be something that can be improved upon.
All of the above are mainly structural issues, things that the league organisers themselves can look at and improve. What happens then when it is one of the Union’s involved that then pits its national side against that of its domestic teams?
The WRU, having insisted yet again on an extra match outside of the international window, are effectively devaluing the competition, and putting their own domestic teams in the Pro 12 at a disadvantage, as well as scuppering any chance of fair preparation for the imminent rounds of the European cup competition next week.
Looking at this weekend’s fixtures, there are three of the four Welsh regions directly affected. On Friday it is the Ospreys v Blues. A massive Welsh derby match and neither side will have their best players to choose from. It will effectively be second XV’s competing and whilst that is perhaps good for player development it does nothing to create a true rivalry in the league and nor does it entice supporters to a game. When the two teams are at full strength this would be one of the Ospreys’ biggest home attendances. Having depleted sides and their own national side playing on the same day, crowd figures are surely going to take a big hit.
The other region affected is current second placed side the Scarlets. On Sunday, they face Ulster who are top of the table and 6 points clear. The Scarlets will be shorn of 12 international players, Ulster will have the majority of theirs available. Not only does that now provide two teams on unequal footing, but it is a turn off for fans knowing that they can’t go and watch their best side compete. When you consider this match is looking like being one of the most important in the league, it’s ridiculous in terms of competition that one of the teams will be so depleted.
The international matches always affect league fixtures, but they have an allocated time in which to do so. The WRU have gone a step beyond this and their attitude to insisting on generating the cash to pay off their debts far quicker than needed is going to have a hugely negative effect on the regions for yet another season.
The league has enough to contend with to make itself an attractive and viable product, without one of the Union’s treating it in this way. What can be said now for the WRU greed when currently Wales are sat in a tier 2 spot, yet if they lose against Australia they will drop down to tier 3. The WRU couldn’t have predicted that Wales would lose all three of their test matches so far, yet this extra game has the potential to backfire hugely; not only on the domestic game, but on the international teams standings and seeding for the rugby world cup. Take a bow, the WRU.