Dismissed by coaches, disowned by fans, slated by pundits and sneered at by outsiders.
The Guinness Pro14 is a professional league containing some of the most historic clubs and exciting players in Europe but seems to attract little more than contempt from the rugby public. But could it just be the most underrated competition in the sport?
Let’s look at some of the criticisms and come to our own conclusion.
Critique #1: the teams are second rate
Probably the most persistent opinion held by outsiders. The Pro14 contains teams from 5 different nations. Four teams from Wales and Ireland and two from Scotland, Italy and now South Africa.
Back in the days of the old Celtic league, there were extra teams from Wales and Scotland. However, they collapsed under financial pressures. The Italian teams were added in 2010 and the South Africans in 2017. Since their inclusion in the competition, one of the Italian teams has finished bottom every year, usually with a points difference somewhere in the region of -300.
The more established nations aren’t immune to bad teams either. The likes of Dragons, Connacht and Edinburgh are often found down in the depths of the standings. The addition of the two South African teams hasn’t helped this image. They both started the season poorly with the Kings, in particular, providing a guaranteed bonus point to any opposition. Cast your eye down the results of any given weekend and you will see scorelines like 40-8 and 36-3.
With no promotion and relegation, these teams are protected from the consequences of being terrible. How can a league with these sort of poor performers be seen as a premier competition?
Answer: It is a league of excitement
While the bottom of the league is poor, the top reads like a roll call at the club rugby hall of fame. Teams like the Irish giants of Leinster, Munster and Ulster, the iconic Scarlets from Llanelli and, in recent years, Glasgow Warriors. These teams are playing consistently high-level rugby each week. They are turning out thrilling matches that make for genuinely enjoyable viewing.
I’d encourage any rugby fan to look up highlights of the Scarlets last year. They applied a traditional Welsh brand of running rugby which was incredibly exhilarating. They toppled Leinster and Munster stunningly in Ireland on their way to winning the title.
Elsewhere, league strugglers the Dragons thrilled a crowd to a 32-32 draw with Ulster. Even the Italian teams are more competitive this year. Benetton are seriously impressing after being taken over by the Italian Rugby Union.
For a true assessment of the quality of teams though we need to compare to other leagues. Thankfully, the European competitions provide a direct comparison between the teams in the Pro14, the English Aviva Premiership and the French Top 14. We should disregard the second tier Challenge Cup due to teams fielding weaker teams.
However, the Champions Cup has the full strength club sides from all Six Nations countries going head to head.
This year the Pro14 are dominating their English counterparts. In the 3rd and 4th rounds of the 17/18 competition Aviva teams won just 2 out of 14 games. The Irish teams comfortably beat Leicester, Harlequins and Exeter while the Ospreys humiliated Northampton. Even last season, Munster and Leinster reached the semi-finals making it one French team, one English team and two Pro14 teams in the penultimate round.
Clearly then, whilst there are poor teams in this league, the Pro14 can also claim to have teams within it that are more than capable of defeating any northern hemisphere opposition.
Critique #2: It doesn’t prepare players for international rugby
In the autumn of 2017, Stefan Evans became the unfortunate stick pundits across the world used to beat the Pro14 with. In the league his statistics were off the charts, scoring tries for fun and beating almost twice as many defenders as any other player. Then he put on a Wales shirt… and it did not go well. Missed tackles and bad decisions had the rugby community saying ‘He’s the best player in your league? Can’t be a good league then can it?’
This theory is subscribed to by no less a man than Warren Gatland himself. He has said many times that he does not take performances in the league into account when considering his selections.
This is reflected in the number of Welsh players who seem to excel each weekend but are left out in the cold when tests come around. Gatland has also said he feels the need to ‘beast’ his players in training when they first come into the Wales camp because they aren’t up to test standard.
Scotland provides further evidence to the contrary. The huge progress of Glasgow has only recently started to be reflected in the Scottish national team. While the Warriors were demolishing their league competition, the national side was still getting thumped in the Six Nations.
Answer: Just look at Ireland and Scotland
However, there are signs that things may be changing. Much has been made of Scotland’s revival in 2017. The bulk of the players creating the revival ply their trade in the Pro14. Ireland go even further by having ALL of their players at Pro14 sides and managing to beat New Zealand and England.
And then you have the simple fact that there are more British and Irish Lions playing in the Pro14 than the Aviva Premiership. You can see Conor Murray versus Rhys Webb, Leigh Halfpenny versus Stuart Hogg or Johnny Sexton versus Finn Russell. With these global superstars on show, surely the Pro14 must be good enough to prepare a player for test rugby?
Critique #3: No one cares about the Pro14
We leave the toughest to last, and it’s tricky to argue against this one.
Let’s start with the audience. Crowds at Pro14 matches can be pretty pathetic. You could say a multi-nation tournament means that away attendance is always going to be limited, but that doesn’t fully account for all the empty seats.
Ospreys have elected to play their games at the same ground as Swansea football club. While the Swans bring in a full house, the Ospreys play to a two thirds empty stadium. The Blues in Cardiff average a crowd of just 5,000 compared to the to the 15,000 you regularly see in France and England. This is a country where rugby is supposed to be the leading sport.
You could look at the history of the clubs or a lack of success to blame for a disinterested public. When rugby turned professional, club teams that had existed for generations were forced to merge into provinces and regions. In the process, they failed to take the fans with them. It would be like asking Liverpool fans to go and cheer for Manchester United. When success was not forthcoming for many of the new teams, any potential new fans turned away.
No image can more illustrate the apathy towards the league than when Leinster travelled to Port Elizabeth this year to play the Southern Kings in front of a stadium with barely 400 people in it.
The TV coverage certainly doesn’t help
The Pro14 is covered by no fewer than EIGHT TV channels. Some are pay per view like Sky Sports and some region specific like BBC Wales. Even so at least two matches per weekend are not televised. It can be a serious case of “out of sight, out of mind” with sport and currently, this league is not getting proper exposure.
And then there are the teams themselves. The Irish teams, which I’ve used throughout this article to defend the Pro14, are known for hardly ever fielding their first team. Leinster, in particular, tend to hold back their internationals for derbies, European matches and the finals.
The knock on effect of this poor exposure is the financial income of the league. The playing budgets of the teams is far lesser than their counterparts in France and England. This ultimately contributes to the problems discussed above.
The Guinness Pro14 is a highly competitive league featuring some of the best club teams in the world. It is delivering successful rugby to Scotland and Ireland, while the Scarlets in Wales are playing a brand of rugby that is a joy to watch. With so many superstars on show, there is huge potential for it to become a leading competition in club rugby.
In order to do that though, it needs more investment and proper exposure to a wider audience. Questions must be asked of the people running the league and what their long-term vision is. They have said recently that they are looking to add teams from Germany, Canada and the USA but first, they must ensure the current format is healthy and can grow. They should look at Super rugby, the other multi-nation league, and learn from its mistakes.
In the short term, success in Europe by the clubs and a strong Six Nations from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and perhaps most importantly Italy can win the respect of outsiders. However, the first priority should be to get the fans onside.
Author: Huw Griffin
I live in the UK and work in engineering by day, but watch sport by weekend! I came to rugby a little later in life than many, but when my grandfather introduced me to the sport I was hooked from day one. You’ll find most of what I say is about Welsh rugby, hopefully one day it will be positive!