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.
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.
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.
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