Billy Stickland/INPHO Somewhere over the rainbow.
# Over The Rainbow
The Rainbow Cup kicks off tonight. But does anyone really care?
Rugby’s authorities have tried their best but this new tournament should have been kicked to touch a long time ago.

LAST UPDATE | Apr 23rd 2021, 3:01 PM

NO SLEEPS to go. The day is finally here. Who needs a Super Cup when we have a mediocre alternative? The Rainbow Cup has arrived. Better still, we’ve got two for the price of one, a northern edition as well as a southern one.

It is a competition that can be added to a stellar list of names; the Celtic League, Magners League, Rabo-Direct; the Pro12; the Pro14 when there were 14 teams in it; the Pro14 when there were just the 12 clubs.

If you are not enthused by this brave new dawn then shame on you. Let’s get you in the mood by revisiting these uplifting words from a special general meeting of the South African Rugby Union (SARU) last September. The orator was Jurie Roux, CEO of South African Rugby, who called the meeting in reaction to ‘the unilateral decision by the New Zealand Rugby Union to proceed with a domestic or trans-Tasman competition’.

Roux described how ‘excited’ South Africa’s members were about the prospect of ‘closer alignment with PRO Rugby Championship and seeking a northern hemisphere future’. Sure who could blame them?

He then added: “We would not have been taking this decision but for actions elsewhere.”

As proposals go, this was up there with Prince Charles’ classic – ‘whatever love is’ – line on the day of his engagement to Princess Diana.

To place that South African meeting in a global context, it took place on the second last day of September, a week when the number of Covid-19 cases worldwide had risen to 32.8m. At that stage of the pandemic, 994,000 deaths had occurred. In Northern Ireland they recorded the biggest single day rise of cases since the start of the pandemic, just two days after Roux’s speech.

An Ulster county, Donegal, joined a Leinster one, Dublin, on Level 3 restrictions.

Across in Scotland, where two more Pro14 teams, Glasgow and Edinburgh were based, tighter restrictions were also about to be introduced, while the four Welsh clubs couldn’t have escaped the fact that ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdowns were imposed during October.

If that month was bad, December was worse.

We saw this with the postponement of four Champions Cup matches across the opening two rounds, a reminder of the difficulties of cross-border competitions. We heard on the news how the number of Covid-19 related cases had risen to 76.3 million worldwide while the global death total stood at 1.68 million. On 23 December, the lead story in the Irish Times warned of ‘sweeping Covid curbs on the way as third wave strikes’. That same day the Rainbow Cup was announced, ‘to consist of a pool stage (two pools of eight teams) and a final between the two pool winners’.

It seemed overly optimistic, especially as 23 December was also the day when the UK health minister, Matt Hancock, announced that two people who had travelled from South Africa to Britain were infected by 501.V2.

Come January, 501.V2 had a different name, the South African variant.

By this point, the original Pro14 2020/21 season was being rushed to a March conclusion, to be decided by the winners of each Conference. As a result, Ulster – who finished with the same number of points as Munster, despite the fact they had to play champions Leinster twice (Munster only had to do so once) – didn’t get to contest a play-off match.

dan-sheehan-scores-a-try James Crombie / INPHO Leinster beat Ulster to reach last year's final. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Nor did Connacht, runners up in Leinster’s conference.

Those two teams start afresh tonight in a new competition (kick-off 8.15pm, eir Sport), one that has no tradition, and is essentially the Pro14 dressed up as another name and one that, quite frankly, doesn’t hold any appeal.

We’d like to be kinder to it, not least because the Pro14 as a competition gets a kicking on a regular basis and by joining in we’re not being much more than a smart-assed bully, picking on an easy target.

Unlike the decision-makers driving soccer’s Super League, you can see that the people involved here have tried to do the right thing, firstly to accommodate South African sides in desperate need of competitive action ahead of the Lions tour, ultimately to make the Pro14 a more attractive championship by getting the top South African sides into it.

There was also another vital reason, SA Rugby offering €6m to participate in the Pro14 – a crock of gold at the end of the Rainbow.

Still we cannot be overly cruel on the administrators. In a global pandemic, planning anything is difficult; planning a new tournament while governments are locking down borders and imposing severe restraints on international travel is practically impossible.

The admin guys tried to make this competition cross the equator. It didn’t happen and  it is clear they’d have been better leaving well alone, waiting until next year until the South Africans enter. What’s left is this shortened Rainbow Cup, a competition no one can expect to be excited about. 

Ulster: Jacob Stockdale, Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stewart Moore, Ethan McIlroy, Billy Burns, John Cooney; Andrew Warwick, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole, Kieran Treadwell, Iain Henderson (CAPT), Matty Rea, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney.

Replacements: John Andrew, Eric O’Sullivan, Ross Kane, Alan O’Connor, Greg Jones, David Shanahan, Michael Lowry, Will Addison.

Connacht: John Porch, Ben O’Donnell, Sean O’Brien, Tom Daly, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, Caolin Blade; Jordan Duggan,  Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Gavin Thornbury, Eoghan Masterson, Conor Oliver,Paul Boyle (CAPT).

Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Matthew Burke, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Niall Murray, Abraham Papali’i, Kieran Marmion, Conor Fitzgerald, Peter Sullivan.

Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU)   

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