The PRO12 has often been marred with the label of the ‘development league’ and has had no easy road since Rugby went professional, with the Welsh civil war of a few years ago still fresh in many minds. With the quarter finals of the Champions cup looking as though they will be dominated by teams from the Premiership and Top 14, where is the PRO12 as a league and how can it improve?
To start with the positives, despite enduring rocky times the PRO12 boasts the same number of European champions as The Premiership (6), which is only 2 shy of the French sides. Granted, these titles are all held by Irish provinces, but other teams have pushed on into the knock-out stages from all the PRO12 nations, except for Italy.
There has also been an increase in audience, both at the games and on the TV. Whilst the Welsh derby day ‘Judgement Day’ pulled a crowd of over 57,000 fans in 2015, the 1872 cup this year attracted over 23,000 fans, a Scottish club record and the Irish provinces always draw good crowds too. According to ‘Rugby World’s’ interview with the PRO12 Director and Chairman, an average round of PRO12 rugby attracts over half a million viewers and receives higher viewing figures than the Premiership and Top 14.
As for the academies, many would argue the PRO12 teams have the best youth academies in Europe. This season for example has seen rise to the likes of young Scots Ali Price and Zander Fagerson, over in Ireland Robbie Henshaw has climbed the ranks to be a mainstay in the Irish team at just 22 years of age, whilst many pundits such as Brian O’Driscoll are backing youngster Gary Ringrose to answer Ireland’s call at 13. On top of this Connacht are no longer the whipping boys of Ireland with quality young players developing among their barracks. This strong academy system can be incredibly beneficial to the Unions, providing young players who have been exposed to quality players from across the World. This video shows just a selection of excellent tries scored in last season’s competition.
Due to the number of quality young players, Wales and Ireland coped with injuries to get to the quarter finals, whilst Scotland produced some of their best rugby in years, unlucky not to reach the semis. On the other hand, England didn’t make it out of their pool and France were left awe struck as the eventual champions, the All Blacks, ran rings around them (and smashed through the middle of them, too). I’m not saying academies are the only reason behind all of this, but they certainly helped these nations and maintained the regional squads whilst over 100 PRO12 players were away on national duties.
Now we come to the flaws in the league. One of the principle problems facing the PRO12 today is being able to compete financially for players against the far wealthier English and French clubs. 2015 was a record breaking year, with Dan Carter the first professional rugby player to receive a payslip of 6 digits when he joined Racing 92. To put that in context, David Denton is one of the highest paid Scottish professionals and receives just shy of £300,000 at Bath. If this made him one of the best paid Scots, what was his salary like in the PRO12? I don’t know the answer, but it’s certainly a lot less.
One of the reasons for a lack of money had been due to sponsorship. With the Welsh civil war and the Italians considering leaving, no one wanted to invest and with RaboDirect bank choosing not to renew as title sponsors, things looked dismal. Since then however, things have stabilised and PRO12 now have both Sky Sports and Guinness on board which will have helped to raise the profile and the income streams.
Another issue which contributes to poor finances is the attendance. As mentioned before, interest is growing, but many of the teams are still regularly posting attendances of less than 5000 people and I believe this is largely due to the nature of the league. An away game isn’t a case of just popping on a train for a day like in England and France. It’s often a flight and a bus, some accommodation and of course food and drink. If PRO12 want to increase attendances they need a main travel sponsor, who can provide quality trips to away games for fans at a reasonable price. With pre-organised trips it will save people a lot of hassle and make them more likely to travel to away games. This is not the only reason for poor attendance, but I believe a sponsorship like this would help bolster numbers as watching away games will be more viable and the atmosphere all the better for it.
The Welsh regions have particularly struggled with attendances, as years of rugby history was forgotten in order to create the 4 regions. This has worked well in developing Welsh talent such as Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb, but many don’t feel a connection to the clubs and interest in these teams is relatively small when you consider Rugby is the national sport of Wales.
Italy have also struggled in the professional era, which makes the bottom of the league pretty uninteresting. I don’t think that abolishing the Italian teams is the answer, nor do I think relegation is the answer. Many people want to see the PRO12 expand to include London Welsh and London Scottish, which could work. However, for the development of Rugby as a whole, I would like to see teams from countries like Georgia involved. For the first time ever, they have qualified automatically for the next World Cup, giving investment in Georgian rugby huge potential. If they had a professional team and got the backing of native players signing for them like has happened in Argentina with Los Jaguares, they could put out a competitive side. Unfortunately lots of players such as Mamuka Gorgodze would be unavailable and hard to buy out of contracts, as they are half of the way through stints at clubs such as Toulon.
On a final note, I feel like choosing Murrayfield for the PRO12 final was a big step. I have always thought that having a final in a club stadium takes away from the spectacle, although I realise if the expected teams don’t reach the final it may be harder to fill the stadium. The PRO12 final last year was a great game, but Ravenhill didn’t seem fitting for a final. It’s an excellent stadium, but it’s capacity is just over 18,000. Murrayfield is over 67,000 and has the potential to be a real spectacle as the finals in the Premiership and Top 14 are, although I fear the stadium may be rather empty this time around. Either way it sets the mark for hopefully grander and more inviting finals in the future.
To see more on PRO12 development, take a look at Rugby World’s “The Big PRO12 Interview” to hear from the Director and Chairman of the league.
As usual, any comments appreciated. Would be interested for people to weigh in on the idea of adding new teams particularly.
The Scribbler, January 11th 2016