.. but unfortunately not a good one. It’s easy to look at the Champions Cup from a PRO12 perspective with doom and gloom this year. For the first time since its conception, not one PRO12 side has made the knockout stages of Europe’s premier rugby competition; The European Champions Cup.
It seems a long time since the days where you could safely pencil and Irish side into the quarter finals. The Welsh sides are no longer making such an impact and haven’t reached knock out territory since the Ospreys lost to Biarritz in the quarter finals in the 2009/10 competition and many feel that in Scotland, Glasgow aren’t reaching their potential. But should we be worried just yet?
This year was disappointing by most accounts. In one of the tightest pools we’ve seen in European rugby, Ospreys were one game point away from an away semi final to the impressive Wasps and can feel hard done by after some excellent performances, particularly in their games at home and away against the French giants, Clermont. The other Welsh representative was the Scarlets, who can be summed up by hijacking a quote of the infamous Honey Badger. You could say that Scarlets were “like the kid who fell out of the tree, he just wasn’t in it”. Perhaps returning star Jonathan Davies and new recruit Rhys Patchell will bring a bit more cutting edge next time around. In the same pool Glasgow did the double on the Scarlets, but two disappointing games against the Northampton Saints denied them their first crack at knockout rugby against the best Europe has to offer.
Leinster suffered heavy defeats to Wasps on both occasions and despite an excellent display of their young talent in their solitary win against Bath, they didn’t give fans an awful lot to shout about. Many are calling for Leo Cullen to step down as it seems the mighty Leinster have fallen. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s Cullen’s first season as a professional coach and once he has his first season out of the way, he could potentially rebuild Leinster to their previous strength with plenty of stars already at his disposal.
Perhaps more understandably, Munster fans also want head coach Anthony Foley out. They’ve put out a series of dire performances this season and that’s only the surface of their issues. Fans are tired of high prices especially on less important games. This frustration has of course been augmented their string of poor results. The lack of action from the powers above at Munster has angered people, although at least they now have the new Irish rugby recruit, Andy Farrell to help out for a short while. Rocky times certainly lie ahead for the men from the south. As for Ulster, a different pool draw in my opinion would’ve seen them out of the pool. They were very impressive, but ultimately Saracens were just too good for them.
On a positive note, before this year’s competition, if you said the names Gary Ringrose, Stuart McLoskey, Zander Fagerson or Sam Underhill, only a select few would know who you are talking about. At the conclusion of the pool stages, McLoskey and Fagerson have been called up to their national sides ahead of the Six Nations for Ireland and Scotland respectively. Ringrose is twenty and although he hasn’t made the Ireland squad this time around, he has the backing of many including Irish rugby’s biggest hero, Brian O’Driscoll. Over in Wales, Sam Underhill is playing for Ospreys as an open side and has turned many heads this season, particularly following Osprey’s defeat of Clermont at the Liberty Stadium. The Ospreys certainly won’t want to lose him back to his home country, England. Other stars have come to light too, but to a lesser extent in the media. For example, it’s hard to ignore how well Ali Price has performed in the absence of what was Glasgow’s first three choices at scrum-half
With Underhill and perhaps Northampton Saints’ Harry Mallinder exceptions, the vast majority of exciting young talents spotted in the Champions Cup have come through the ranks of PRO12 teams and their academies, which shows that the league shouldn’t be taken lightly. The big issue of course as ever, will be retaining these players and fighting off bids from richer and potentially more appealing clubs. However, in what has been a tough campaign for the PRO12 sides there is a lot of hope and developing talent which in a few years time could be the envy of the big guns of Europe.
But what do you think? On twitter, I gave four conclusions for the PRO12 in Europe this year; The future is bright, Poor management, Lack of quality players or simply hard luck. The majority (42 percent) chose hard luck, second place being a lack of quality players (33 percent). Lots of people also brought up the fact that money is an issue, which certainly plays a big factor in retaining and obtaining talent. (You can see more about financial woes and the PRO12 as a league in general, here)
Come next season, the outlook could well be brighter. Teams such as Glasgow and Leinster have lost some big names in recent seasons and are having to adapt to that. Once they do however, they could be a real threat. Ulster aren’t miles away. Munster have heritage, and will be eager to come back. The Ospreys will learn from their mistakes. There are teams in the league who may not win the trophy, but can certainly make their mark on club rugby’s biggest stage. This is the lowest ebb for PRO12 rugby in Europe, but they’ll be back, they’ll be better and they’ll be providing big international stars for years to come.
As usual, I’d love for you to weigh in either on twitter or by posting a comment.
The Scribbler, 28th January 2016