SO ALL THE Irish provinces have left to fight for this season is the Rabo Pro title.
Along with the hurling and football leagues, this must be the only competition in the world where interest wanes as it nears its conclusion.
The Celtic League is only relevant when it is framed around preparation for the Heineken Cup, and so too the Allianz Leagues are only ever looked on as a way to blood young players, work on systems and get fit for the Championship.
Players and managers proclaim the league’s importance, and the Rabo Pro final is always a great occasion, but over the course of a season the supporters are the real arbiters, and in both attendance levels and atmosphere, there is no comparison between the two competitions.
Hurling and football fans can rightly say tradition is why the Championship dominates, but in rugby the league is only five years older than the Heineken Cup, which itself was small-time in the early years. Why then has the Celtic League, if anything, gone backwards in the last few years?
Since its inception in 2001, it has been a tough competition for fans to grab a hold of, partially because the name keeps changing with the sponsor. It’s fine to call your competition after a brand, provided they are in it for the long term, à la Heineken. The next deal they cut has to be for a longer period. At the moment Turkish Airlines are expected to take over, who have long-term sponsorship deals with both Manchester United and Barcelona.
The format has also changed constantly over the years and teams have come and gone at a rapid rate. The Border Reivers and the Celtic Warriors no longer exist and Italian side Aironi only lasted two seasons. South African sides were once reportedly close to joining up, as were London Welsh, and this season the Italians again threatened to pull out. It feels as though the competition is in a constant state of flux.
(Aironi lasted just two seasons in the RaboDirect PRO12)
The fact that so many Welsh and Irish stars get rested for long periods is arguably the most damaging aspect of all. Even the Irish interpro games have been diluted in recent times with coaches occasionally accepting defeat away from home in order to target their home games. It’s not as if they have any choice, they’re just following IRFU player management protocols, but the message sent to fans is ‘if we lose this game, it’s not the end of the world’.
There are other issues such as the refereeing (which Pat Lam, Rob Penney, Michael Cheika and other coaches have all correctly pointed out is holding the league back), the poor quality of the Italian teams, and Edinburgh playing in an empty Murrayfield, but they’re all rectifiable over the medium term, if the will is there.
What’s more worrying is the Welsh provinces are now at their lowest ebb since they were formed over 10 years ago. Ulster, Leinster and Munster thrive in spite of the league, not because of it and Edinburgh are an irrelevance these days. That leaves Glasgow and Connacht as the only two clubs that have grown their fan base and standards, which isn’t a great endorsement.
On Friday, Ulster welcome Leinster to a sold-out Ravenhill. This match will be Heineken Cup standard and the Ulster fans, as ever, will make lots of noise. In a strange way though, the Welsh and Irish interpro games are still more important as standalone fixtures, as opposed to because they’re part of the league.
The English club owners and many of their pundits believe the new European Cup format can only improve the Celtic League. The teams at the bottom will theoretically be forced to up their game, which assumes they haven’t really been trying up to now? The more likely scenario is the sides that consistently fail to qualify for Europe will lose fan numbers and possibly play less attractive rugby, as the pressure to survive forces them into short-term solutions, on and off the field of play.
‘Saracens deserve their place in the final, but did they deserve a place in the semis?’ — Johann Muller