I should start by saying I have only followed the Pro12 with any level of interest in the last few seasons- so I’m more then willing to be told that I’m incorrect. However, in my opinion this is one of the most exciting Pro12 run-ins I’ve seen in the last few seasons.
Many Pro12 sides, especially the Irish provinces, are criticised for focussing on European rugby and not the league they play in. For teams who do this, it’s a big gamble- but if it works, it can be a huge boost. Great examples of this are Leinster and Munster. A lot of their efforts over the last decade have gone into Europe over the Pro12, but look at where they are. Leinster are three times European champions, joint best with Toulon and Munster have one the title twice. That said, they also boast a number of Pro12 titles, too.
However, when the best sides have their stars rested ahead of a European final and another side beats them, is this a significant result? Perhaps in terms of league points yes, but when it’s clearly an under strength side focussing on Europe, it feels a lot less potent and can throw the integrity of the league into question. I should add, I don’t think that this is always the case, but this is quite a popular opinion.
This, is exactly why I think that the Pro12 team’s lacklustre performance in Europe this season has been a blessing in disguise. With no teams in the Champions Cup knock out stages for the first time ever and just two in the Challenge Cup, teams have been forced to focus on the league. It’s worth highlighting that some sides such as Scarlets seemed to focus on the Pro12 over Europe this year anyway- perhaps in the knowledge of the new signings they will have, giving them a better opportunity to go further next year.
With regards to the Challenge Cup, Newport Gwent Dragons and Connacht are the two sides left representing the Pro12. With a lot of change to internal politics and the fact NGD have to travel to last year’s champions Gloucester, I see them focussing more on finishing the league on a high, than pushing on in the Challenge Cup. As for Connacht who currently sit second in the Pro12, they genuinely have a chance to beat Grenoble- but with so many injuries, especially at fly-half, I think they will be more focussed on retaining a place in the top four of the Pro12 to try and secure a first ever home semi-final, which would be a real sign of the progress made by the men out west, under head coach Pat Lam.
Now, I’ll be honest, I haven’t done the maths, but with just four standard season games left, just eleven points separates the top seven sides. With the Italian’s firmly at the bottom of the league and taking an automatic qualification spot, this means that only the top six of the league will qualify for Champions Cup rugby. Even those who will struggle and may need a spot of luck to make the top four of the Pro12, still have a lot to play for with the lure of top flight rugby next season very real. Every game is key, even for the Italians, with just three points between them (Zebre have a difficult game in hand against Glasgow) it’s still all to play for as they battle for Champions Cup rugby.
As mentioned, being a youngster I can’t look back all that far to tell you otherwise, but the end of this season is shaping up to be one of the best I’ve seen and I think that has largely resulted from a shift of focus onto the league and really excites me for the Final in Edinburgh on May 28th. Previously, Pro12 finals haven’t been the biggest events with just over 17,000 attending last year.
I know this isn’t a huge crowd, especially not to fill BT Murrayfield, which has a capacity of over 67,000, but there is often so much negativity so often surrounding the league and I want to see people embrace the positives. Connacht’s rise to the top, Glasgow’s fight back at the end of the season, one of the most competitive season ends we’ve seen in a while and finally a big stadium to showcase, what should be a big event. If people celebrated these things, the final could be a real spectacle, with great rugby and a relatively big crowd. I have my tickets for May 28th and I can’t wait, no matter which teams make it and hope that others will really get behind this years final too.
Edit: Today, many reports have suggested that the Pro12 is struggling for viewer-ship and that Sky are considering dropping the deal. However, according to an article in Rugby World, this is not the case.
Finally, tickets are available from the Scottish Rugby ticketing website. I look forward to meeting some of you there.
The Scribbler, April 7th, 2016