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Leinster's O'Connor believes Pro12 expansion is not a good idea

The Australian believes the Italian clubs’ involvement is good for the international game.

LEINSTER COACH MATT O’Connor believes the Guinness Pro12 would be best served by ensuring Italian clubs remain involved.

Reports of England-based clubs London Welsh and London Scottish having an interest in joining the Pro12 persist, although competition organisers yesterday told The42 that no discussions have taken place in that regard.

Jamie Heaslip with the trophy and teammates at the end of the match Leinster are the Pro12 holders. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Italian outfits Zebre and Treviso, the bottom two clubs in the Pro12 by some distance this season, are believed to owe the competition a sum in excess of €1million relating to the fees that allow them to compete in the Pro12.

That has magnified unhappiness with the Italian involvement in some quarters, with at least one Welsh region believing the involvement of London Welsh and London Scottish would make more commercial sense for the Pro12.

Whether there is to be any change to the teams involved in the Pro12 over the coming years, Leinster’s head coach O’Connor is clear in stating that 12 clubs is the ideal number for the competition.

“The perfect number is 12 in my opinion,” said O’Connor at an event to promote LauraLynn Children’s Hospice yesterday. “I think that gives you good integrity in the league. That gives you the ability, without overloading the schedule, to play everybody home and away.

That’s important and I think you need that. Regardless of the make up of that, I think 12 is probably the perfect number for us. Whether that’s a London Scottish and a London Welsh or the Italians or whoever it is, that’s the perfect number that we need to stick to.”

The English Premiership currently operates with 12 clubs, although France’s top-tier league has 14 and the Southern Hemisphere’s Super Rugby now operates with 15.

When asked whether or not the Italian clubs have been competitive enough in the Pro12, O’Connor underlined his belief that their involvement can only be a good thing for the global game.

Leinster face Treviso at the RDS this evening in a crucial game, and with the Italian clubs having won just six games between them in the Pro12 this season.

Matt O'Connor O'Connor was speaking at LauraLynn Children's Hospice. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“I think the international game needs Italy to be involved,” said O’Connor. “In relation to their competitiveness in the Six Nations and their competitiveness in the Pro12, I think it’s a huge market as well.

“You need to try and grow that and flourish the development of the game in those places for the good of the game.

“Whether it’s as competitive as we would like, it’s hard to comment but I think you need to keep them involved and I think you need to look at all the avenues possible to develop the game there so they’re better and that they then have opportunities in the Six Nations and World Cup.”

Leinster captain Jamie Heaslip was somewhat more open to the idea of the Pro12 growing either in size or by bringing new clubs into the fold.

When asked if the players would be excited to see London clubs brought into the Pro12, the Ireland number eight pointed out that any expansion would impact on players physically.

“Yes and no,” answered Heaslip. “In terms of expanding the league, there’s already quite a few games being fitted in and obviously a few more games means just more batterings that you have to take as a player.

“I suppose that’s where the team with the strongest squad can come through. In terms of expanding the game, I think it’s a good idea to potentially have more teams involved from other countries and expand the rugby brand. Whichever hat you have on, either rugby in general or the Pro12 hat, I think it’d be a smart move.”

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Murray Kinsella

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