At a Pro14 match, I did something I’ve never done before and left the match at halftime. As a one off I could have endured it, but this is the umpteenth non-contest on a cold Friday night.

Of course, the cold Friday night is another issue in itself, but to have the away team well beaten after 20/25 minutes is becoming the norm. At that stage the crowd has lost all interest beyond the antics of the team mascot, a very commendable performance in fairness to Leo the Lion. This is the problem the Pro14 has created. It could have much further reaching issues for the game than just my lack of enjoyment.

Leo the Lion
Photo: justinhourigan via Wiki Commons

The halcyon days of Munster

To explain the potential dangers of this lack of competition to Irish rugby, it’s important to look back at a brief history of Irish rugby in the professional era. Even as a Leinster fan, it’s hard not to argue that professional rugby in Ireland came of age with the great Munster team of the late 90’s and early 2000’s that captured the hearts of the public. This encouraged hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland that rugby wasn’t the elitist game they’d always thought it was. It also developed the unique characteristic of rugby fans’ attachment to the sport in Ireland. This was built upon the GAA’s ethos – an indigenous sports organisation in Ireland – of playing for one’s parish. A harnessing of this passion for one’s province heralded a new connection between the public and rugby, particularly Munster.

This was an enduring feature of the many famous Thomond Park miracles that the great Munster team conjured up. An outsider watching these matches could close their eyes and imagine themselves in the Colosseum, such was the atmosphere. The emotion, passion, ferocity and sheer Munsterness of these games inspired an entire generation. This coupled with the increasing success of the Irish team developed a special bond between the public and the national and provincial teams that still endures. The level of competition the then Heineken Cup provided to fans as well as its rarity encouraged these enormous occasions. The introduction of the Celtic League and now its current incarnation The Pro14 has increased the rugby but diluted the intensity. This is what is really at stake as this connection between province and fan could wane. Celtic Rugby’s pursuit of constant soccer premiership style rugby should be a concern for all.

What has become of the auras?

Fast forward the ten plus years to now from the halcyon days and what has become of the Thomond, Ravenhill and Lansdowne auras?

If you’d been in the Aviva for the Leinster/Munster game this year you would struggle to recognise it. The November internationals against South Africa and Argentina were a shadow of what they should be. The Irish provinces versus any of the Italian or South African teams would be enough to make anyone take up the hobby of watching paint dry. Even a top team like the Scarlets or Glasgow coming to Ireland minus their top players or vice versa is a one-sided slaughter that goes through the motions. The sheer tedium of an average night at a Pro14 game is becoming unbearable.

The Pro14 has 21 matches a season but there are single digit matches that are competitive. This has turned the supporter into a passive receptacle of what’s happening in front of them rather than active contributors to the spectacle. Even the hallowed Irish inter-provincial games are not what they used to be. With the increasing number of games, Inter-Pros are treated like any other game. Therefore, upcoming fixtures, squad rotation plans, and slight niggles are enough to see a mid-strength Leinster team travel to their supposed arch nemesis Munster shorn of their best players. This is a unique danger to Ireland.

Far from dominant

It’s hard to forget in the heady days of Ireland’s current success that rugby is far from a dominant sport in Ireland. It is by far the third sport in this county and if you were to separate GAA into its two component sports, it’s really the fourth sport. Yet, we can challenge the mighty All Blacks, our provinces compete manfully with the money men of Europe and we continually punch above our weight. It is arguable that some of this is due to the unquantifiable percentage, albeit small in the professional era, that we get from this bond to the jersey.

Others might laugh at this but look at Louis Picamoles, not to have a go at him, putting in a tackle for Leicester or Montpellier, now that he’s jumped ship again and Peter O’Mahony taking hours if not days off his life expectancy with his devotion to making a hit for Munster. Surely this translates into how both make a tackle at international level. The reaction of the fans in Thomond Park to an O’Mahony hit typifies the unique ethos of fan involvement cultivated by Munster.

Peter O’Mahony leading out the Lions against the All Blacks.
Photo: Marty Melville
Less games

Therefore, we cannot afford for our players and our fans to be enduring such second-class dross. It’s time to shake up the Pro14. The conference system, introduced this year to accommodate the two South African teams is now a unique opportunity to play fewer games a year. The problem with the Pro14 is too many uncompetitive matches. Why? Because of squads resting and rotating players. That makes the answer clear, reduce the games and ensure that the top players are available more often.

Speaking purely as a fan, I would be happy to see fewer games a year if the games I see are high-quality games with most of the internationals on the field.

Missing stars

Last week Leinster played the Scarlets during the international window. A game that didn’t feature Johnny Sexton, Jack Conan, Cian Healy, Andrew Porter, Jack McGrath, Rob Kearney, Robbie Henshaw, Dan Leavy, Leigh Halfpenny, Gareth Davies, Rhys Patchell, Steff Evans, Scott Williams, Aaron Shingler, …… the list goes on, but you get the point. A game featuring those guys brings a red-hot atmosphere to the stadium. What was witnessed was a second-rate game played in front of a placid crowd.

The game I left at halftime saw Leinster beat the Southern Kings by 64-7.

Losing the connection

This is at the heart of the connection that is being lost to the fan. Ireland as a rugby country cannot afford to lose the special feeling of being in the sports grounds. Ravenhill, Thomond Park, The RDS and particularly the Aviva. Some home internationals in recent times have resembled a church where the participants feel the necessity to prove they’re there every so often by responding to what’s happening in front of them. It is heart-wrenching to think that rugby will continue to become this bottom-line game that ignores the people in the ever-decreasing numbers that attend.

While this is a general concern, Ireland particularly, cannot afford to lose the connection that has brought rugby to the national consciousness here. An actual Pro14 with only 14 matches is the way to go, supplemented with the continuing excellence of the European Cup.

The marketeers won’t like it but until they can generate as big a cheer from the crowd by hitting a ruck or slotting a drop goal, rather than piping in blaring pop music, maybe we should listen to the fans.

Author: Sean Devlin

17 COMMENTS

  1. Good morning Sean,
    Firstly I think you should give the two conferences a chance to settle down, say three seasons at least.
    For a variety of reasons the SA teams have been relatively weak but from a neutral perspective I like the way they try to play the game. Kings have just beaten the Dragons by a margin. Bernard Jackman has a big job on his hands down in Newport and I hope he is given time.
    We all like to see the superstars but pro rugby is so attritional and player welfare must take precedence. The connection between concussions and dementia is becoming clearer. Are you saying J Sexton should not be rested after being targeted?
    Your side or any other side in the Pro 14 could not survive on only 14 games.
    As for the players involved in the club games during the 6 Nations it give others/ young players the chance to break through. Edinburgh’s last three games in particular have gone right to the wire with ER winning with the last kick or touch of the match. In the Ulster match in particular young Lewis Charmichael was outstanding in the second row, a star of the future.
    I am sorry that you appear bored by supporting the most efficient and entertaining side in Europe.
    ps think the 1014 is great and a breath of fresh air in rugby reporting.

  2. Good article. Interesting to contrast with the situation here in England. the Irish set up in particular is being held up as a very successful model in terms of keeping international players fresh and rested especially post Lions tour. Nice to get a fans perspective on this. We in England benefit from a really competitive prem this year where pretty much anyone can and does beat anyone else(apart from London Irish)and attendances are pretty healthy as a result. There are rumblings however that a highly competitive league with relegation is stifling attacking rugby and developing young players. In fact Leinster is being held up as model in developing young players. Less games in both leagues is definitely a way forward which would allow players more rest without shirt changing fans. It’s unthinkable that say Tigers vs Saints put out less than full strength teams and I can understand why the atmosphere in Ireland could be a bit flat with so many top players missing. It also has a knock on in not encouraging away fans to travel which must be a huge issue in the pro 14, you’d have to be seriously committed to travel to watch Scarlets b vs Munster b!!

  3. Hi Sean, i see your point

    i personally think that as a sport, rugby still has to find its own dimension and place

    World Rugby wants the sport to be more commercial and global, this means that obviously you are going to lose that intimate taste of that something more important than simply watching a sport

    For example, even in this forum posts about an european championship is continuely discussed, but really, are we ready to lose the scottish hymn during a calcutta cup played in scotland as happened last week?

    the problem is that i and you are not vready, but world rugby has already indicated the way and rugby is going to be more global, commercial and maybe even right

    just think about the international windows reformed from 2020… ireland itself, as all other tier-1 teams, will have less chance to play bigger teams outside the classic 6 nations format. Is it going to be good or bad for irish rugby? time will tell

  4. Are attendances down significantly? They fell with the recession but seem on the way back up again with the irish provinces top of the heap. One of the significant benefits to all PRO 14 teams (bar SA as still new) is the strength in depth being built by having to dig deep into their squads and academies when international players are unavailable. Also I’d question the one sidedness of games, been plenty of upsets this year with the Italian teams taking scalps.
    The rivalries between Munster and Leinster have dropped but I think that’s because neither are competing or winning the ECC (yet) which is still seen as the number one trophy.
    What the Pro14 needs is a couple of years of stability, it’s been tinkered with almost nonstop for years, and some good marketing.

  5. Hi guys,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to read the article and comment. I really appreciate it.

    In my opinion, the Pro14 would benefit from reducing the games that are played. This could be a 12 fixture competition with home and away fixtures against your conference opponents or a 13 fixture comp in which you play alternate year home and away, similar to the six nations, against each team in the comp. This coupled with the European Champions Cup, to me, would be a better experience for the fans as the top players would be available more often and each game would have more at stake. I’ll be the first to accept this is highly unlikely to happen. Even though it’s great that Leinster are having so much success at the moment, I would love to see a little more competition is all.

    One slight correction, I’m aware Louis Picamoles actually played for Northampton not Leicester. Sorry for the error.

    Thanks again,

    Seán.

  6. I think the Pro14 just needs to be patient, over in SA now that the Cheetahs and Kings have been added. There’s this reluctant curious interest in the pro14 and as soon as the Cheetahs and Kings settle and start winning people will flock to the stadiums.

    The 2 franchises are making more money, so they will be able to keep their players for longer. Remember both these franchises lost a significant amount of keys players after being relegated from super rugby. They have also played non-stop rugby since February 2017.

    The Italians are starting to improve. With the USA entering the tournament soon, yes they will struggle at first but given a few years will be the bread and bother of a strong competition.

    The SA teams might be weak for now, but will get immensely stronger in the years to come since they’re making more money. They are some of the region’s that produce the most young talent in SA.
    Not just that, but if this seems lucrative from an South African rugby perspective, they might enter our stronger franchises into the competition since they have shown interest in the competition already. Which means more revenue.

    Our other franchises play more the way Munster and Leinster play so they will probably be good from the get go.

  7. Great detailed article Sean.

    All I would say in response as a Glasgow rugby fan is that the competition seems much maligned but really should be given a bit more of a chance. Of course you are right there are a few lopsided games, but you don’t have to rewind the clock too many years to when Glasgow and Edinburgh were resolutely mid to lower table perennials without anything like the strength in depth of even the Welsh regions, never mind the Irish teams. Fast forward to now and the professional game, which relatively speaking in the British Isles is still in its infancy, and the Scottish teams are starting to get a better foothold, and performing better in the Pro14. Of course they have for the most part failed to perform in top tier European competition unlike their Irish counterparts, but I think that will also come over time as they develop further depth to their squads, but they are several years behind the exemplary Irish teams on that front.

    We have to be a little careful in what we wish for with domestic rugby. The English Premiership is rightly held up as a great and competitive domestic competition, but delve into the cost of running some of those teams, (often at a significant loss despite healthy gate receipts and TV money) and the wage structure that the teams are fast trapping themselves in to compete with the French Top 14, and you can see it starting to have an impact on the International teams over time. Arguably we have already seen the negative impact with the French national side, who I really don’t ever remember at any other time in their history having such a protracted period of poor performance?

    I hate drawing parallels with football, but whereas in Rugby Union, the pinnacle of the game remains International competition and Test Matches, could we really say that is still the case in football? The top players are paid vast sums by clubs who, understandably, feel that club football comes first, and pays for most everything, so internationals are an unwanted distraction. I know it’s a stretch comparison given the relative popularity of the two sports; but as clubs/provinces potentially gain further commercial power and control over players, it can have unintended negative consequences.

    Having witnessed the incredible past 15-20 years of Irish success and resurgence at the top level, where much credit goes to the careful management of the players by the IRFU and the provinces, future shakeups of the Pro 14 might threaten some of this good work, so I’m inclined to agree with other replies that plead for a bit of time for this latest format to settle down.

    A big existential challenge all Rugby at the professional level will increasingly face is the challenge of balancing the books and paying for the best players, while dealing with an increasingly attritional playing schedule that will only come under more pressure as and when commercial concerns have more of a say on things.

  8. While I share a lot of sentiment with Sean’s article, and have been to any number of cold, one sided, difficult watches in the Pro 12/14, I think there is another aspect which he hasn’t taken into consideration here.

    The additional games, particularly those in and around international windows, are vital for developing young talent.

    One of the most pleasing aspects of Schmidt and Nuciforas tenure has been the development of real strength in depth and of the quality of young player development – particularly in Leinster, but also the measures which are beginning to blossom down here in Munster and around the country.

    The attrition rate, especially in international rugby is brutal and the reason we have the ability to replace players like OBrien, Heaslip, Payne, Henshaw, Ringrose is because the talented young stars coming through get real, meaningful, high quality game time in the Pro 14 to prepare them for that jump towards the first team.

    If guys like Porter, Ryan, O’Mahony, Leavy, Conan, Murray, Ringrose, Stockdale and Larmour had come up through a team which played less games but always started the first XV, would they all have stuck around waiting for injuries to give them a chance?

    Or would some of them have left for guaranteed game time and better wages at English or French clubs? Places where the IRFU can’t manage their workload and development or access them for important training weeks. Would others have taken years longer to develop to the stages they’re at now?

    England and France have competitive domestic leagues but in my opinion, both massively underachieve on the European and international stage. Countries with their rugby resources should be brushing aside the rest of us with consistent ease.

    We may have to sit through the occasional one sided domestic game, but the benefit of seeing real talent develop and flourish in front of you, along with the ability to manage your resources towards the more prestigious European and international tournaments makes that a deal worth making in my book.

    • Spot on Diarmuid.

      A lot of rugby fans really, really enjoy seeing the “nippers” coming through; they show promise in the B&I; they get a toe-hold in their Pro14 side when stars are resting, giving it heaps (whereas Internationals would stroll through some matches if they had to play them all and also knew that the nippers wouldn’t get a chance to show what they could do and challenge them); they stay in the Pro14 team when the stars are injured and boom – they overtake any stars who age or lose form.

      Nothing more boring than seeing the same 23 players playing match in, match out.

      But it would be interesting to have a poll of people who actually attend matches to see whether we or Sean are/is in the majority.

      I always imagine that the IRFU’s remit is something like “To facilitate as many Irish players to play rugby successfully at as high a level as possible”. I think the Pro14 helps that happen. Of course, it’s a balancing act because the overall finances have to be working for that to happen, and I don’t have the knowledge to say whether the finances could be usefully improved by what you suggest, Sean.

  9. Really interesting stuff Sean. It seems that you’re not likely to get your wish any time soon with the Pro14 set to expand further if other reports are to be believed. This would most probably mean the inclusion of more weaker teams. The main aim for Pro14 owners is increasing revenue in order to compete financially with French and English leagues. The way they’re trying to do this is expanding into more markets, which could potentially open the door to lucrative tv deals in other countries. But they really need to heed lessons from super rugby, where diluting the competition has turned off the existing fans.
    My two cents, I’ve actually really enjoyed the Pro14 this year. It’s great to see the Italian teams finally winning and the games I have seen have been great to watch. In any league you’re gonna get 1 or 2 teams that are better than the rest. But I can understand your point about diluting the level of competition has caused a lot of Leinster game to become boringly one sided. What is apparent though is that Leinster have great strength in depth courtesy of a frighteningly good production line. It must be good from an Irish national team perspective to see such a strong team domestically.

  10. Great article and replies unfortunetly there will always be one sided games its only recently that Ireland could compete never mind beat New Zealand. The last time I went to an Ireland New Zealand game I would have been happy if we scored a try ten years on and we have the abiity to beat any team this has only been posible because of the Pro14 league and the level of Rugby our development players are being exposed to. The Scottish sides have got their systems right and are now producing World class players the SA teams will get their act together and the Italians have now realised that good rugby teams are built from the ground up as can be seen by the quality of their U20s over the last couple of seasons.

  11. Really good article, Sean, and a fantastic discussion. Both sides in this debate have really valid points and how the Pro14 find the balance between having a good, exciting competition and maintaining player welfare is the question. It certainly seems as though the Irish and Welsh Lions have come through this year in much better shape than their English counterparts.

  12. You raise some issue but I think your conclusions are wrong and possibly more about issue for a specific team at one point in time.

    Bringing in SA was about cash. Cash to help the celtic teams hold on to their players. Would it be better if the best players left to ply their trsde in other leagues.

    Your conclusion playing fewer games would not make an Italian or SA team better. The question is do you dump them or try and build them. At the end of the day if there are a couple of games that are predictably oneside, dont go. As long as most are competitive. The stronger side can blood other players in these games.

    The issue of teams not playing their strongest team is mainly due to internationals not too many games per se. As such what is needed is to have say a winter shutdown for the 6nations. Or move the 6nations to June like the fittae at the end of the season. Or run the season from April to December. etc.

    As has been mentioned this will lose development games which can be placed with a development league.

  13. I agree with the thrust of Sean’s argument about further changes to the PRO14 Championship.

    The first step is to acknowledge that it is no longer a league where every team plays the other home and away. It’s transformed itself into a conference style Championship and for a lot of reasons, this makes a lot of sense in growing the game, expansion of teams, and creating more revenue.

    The plan for the PRO14 is to expand further with more teams coming in 2020, and consequently reducing the amount of games per season. The ideal number I think is 16 rounds plus finals which takes games out of the test windows completely. Two conferences of 8 teams with plus 2 cross conference derbies would provide this with the top 3 from each conference going into finals series. The increase in teams and TV sponsorship revenue would compensate for reduction in game/gate revenues.

    There are also discussions underway to change the timing of the European Cup with potentially all the pool games being played during December and January including possibly the quarter-finals before the start of the Six Nations. The 6N CEO has indicated that moving the start of the Six Nations to a week later in February would not be a problem and could facilitate this.

    With the new global season coming into play in 2020, this would see the PRO14/16 season start in late September with say 6 rounds being played before the new start time of the November Internationals in the first 3 weeks of November. This would be followed by 2 more league games/derbies and then 6 weeks of European Cup games plus quarter-finals. (An added complication here would be if SA teams are allowed enter the comp, then travel and heat in SA would have to be considered.)

    The Six Nations would follow this, finishing in third week of March. And then the remainder of the PRO14 and English Premiership for 13 weeks until 3rd weekend of June with weekends for the semi-final and final of the European Cup slotted in. The inevitable ringfenced, relegation-free and probably 14-team English Premiership in 2020 would schedule differently except for the common blocks of tests and European games.

    Lastly, the B&I Cup and Anglo-Welsh Cup would be dropped in favour of a proper B&I development Cup comp to be played by U23s senior and academy players during the test windows using provincial A sides, Scottish Super Six and new Welsh U23 teams along with equivalent from Premiership teams.

    Simple really.

    • Yes but look of how the Celtic nations have become by far the best sides in Europe since the Celtic league started with Scotland also playing great rugby alongside both Wales and Ireland .

  14. Have to agree it’s the same in Cymru , ‘(Wales)’ I mean the Pro14 is doing something right with reemergence of both Wales winning three GS and a championship Ireland winning two GS and Chapionship and now with Scotland playin great fantastic rugby too , the Pro14 has done wonders because before the introduction of the Celtic league , us Celts were way behind even England and France .
    So the league is doing something right isn’t it , although we want to see more competitive rugby in our league also my fellow Celts and Goodluck to the Celtic nations .

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