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.

Action from back in the days of the Celtic League.
By Rob Gale, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

World Class midfield boss Jonathan Davies.
By Eoin Gardiner, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Champions Cup

However, the Champions Cup has the full strength club sides from all Six Nations countries going head to head.

Champions Cup.
Photo: Steve Watkins, via Flickr

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?

Rhys Webb

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!


  1. Thanks Huw a great atricle.
    Being in South Africa we were never exposed to the Pro 14, maybe a Aviva or Top 14 game a weekend. But with the inclusion of the Cheetahs (I dont rate the Kings yet even when they were in Super Rugby ), we have had more games televised locally sometimes only the Kings and Cheetahs and one other game, but lately they have been showing 4-6 games a week and this is great.
    I am so impressed with Irish Rugby, and I can see it as a blue print for the Springboks but that is a conversation for another day.

    I believe the addition of a better South African team maybe my beloved Bulls, so having the Cheetahs and the Bulls would offer some real value to the Pro 14, the Cheetahs have a way of developing talent every year and can field a team for Currie Cup and Pro 14 next year the competitions wont overlap and the Cheetahs would of had an off season they basically finished Super Rugby and almost instantly went to PRO 14, but they offer something that could benefit the PRO 14. They may not know how to defend at all but they can score tries and have some serious pace.

    The Kings I dont know you would think that after so many games they could pull off a win at least at home in front of there 20 fans 😉

    The Cheetahs crowd have always been more keen on domestic competitions like Currie Cup, but if you get a full stadium in Bloemfontein it is so impressive. It needs to be sold to the public. Also there are very few places where Rugby can be played at altitude and Bloemfontein offers this.

    Currently my support is for Muster, as a Springbok supporter I just like the brand of Rugby they play. Very much front foot ball, physicality it is impressive. Even at European level I think they are excellent.

    I will be honest though, give a me a New Zealand Super Rugby Derby the skills on display are epic, but a good Irish Derby is just as entertaining but in a different way.

    I am still learning the teams and their history and creating my own history with the competition, but this first year I have been impressed. I dont think it should get any bigger Super Rugby went down this road and it effected the standard of Rugby.

    Thanks again for the article.

    • Thank you for your kind words mate ?

      The cheetahs have been a great edition, could an away trip then be the toughest game in the league?

      It’s great to hear a SA perspective, especially since your coming to it fresh and be a bit more objective. Can you tell me if any current springboks are playing for the Pro14 teams? That would be big for the credibility of the league if there were.

      I can recommend you check out the highlights of last years final between Munster and scarlets, most enjoyable match I watched all year (but I’m a scarlets fan so you know… ?)

      Happy new year

      • Hi Huw
        Off hand I know Francois Venter plays for the Springboks, he replaced Jan Serfontein so not sure if he will still be selected when he comes back. But I do rate Francois Venter real work horse so he may go to outside center for the Springboks.
        The other player is Uzair Cassiem but I dont think he will be selected going forward especially with the No 8 coming back like Duane Vermeulen and Warren Whiteley.
        Raymond Rhule is another but I am sure he will never be selected again as he missed 11 tackles against New Zealand.

        But my money would be on Francois Venter being selected for the Springboks on a regular basis.

  2. Great article Huw! I think you are dead right about some of the criticism of the Pro14 being too harsh. I believe the main reason English and French fans don’t take the league itself seriously is that the best sides rarely field full strength sides in regular league games. I know you addressed that in the article but for me it is by far the main issue. We certainly respect many of the teams involved when they play in Europe. My team Leicester were eviscerated by Glasgow at home last year, painful memories!

    • Thanks mate!

      One thing I forgot to mention was that the Pro14 doesn’t stop during international windows, so nearly a quarter of the games the best players aren’t available for anyway!

      I can recommend checking out the festive derbies this weekend, should hopefully be pretty full on!


  3. Interesting stuff Hugh. I am a big fan of Pro 14 and it does indeed produce great rugby. It is a shame at the low attendances in the Welsh regions. Wales couldn’t have supported all of the original clubs when professionalism came in, but fans still clearly haven’t come around to fully supporting the new clubs created.
    In terms of future format/number of teams, the Pro 14 is the most intriguing professional league around. From what I’ve read, they’re very open to further expansion…
    When the current Super Rugby contract ends in 2020, will the rest of the South African teams try to be included in the Pro 14 and align their domestic rugby with the more lucrative and same-television-time-zone European club rugby?
    Will Italy ever have a team competing for the title? Promising signs this year that things are on the up and also their youth set up is deffo getting better, but I’m not holding my breath for something soon.
    Teams in the US? Teams from the rest of Europe? Really not sure about the US expansion idea, lessons should be learnt from the expansion to far flung places in Super Rugby; hopefully MLR works out for them and they don’t need try and make inroads into a European league. I think expansion within Europe though might work. I envisage that an away trip to Barcelona or Lisbon rugby club would be palatable to the average Pro 14 fan. But I think it’s something for the future because those teams wouldn’t be competitive at the moment.

    • Thanks George!

      It’s a tough one, personally I’d like to see an Americas league, maybe even North America and South America. The trouble with cross border leagues tends to be it limits the number of teams per nation so you get situations like they have in Argentina and japan.

      It’s tricky cos the idea is to develop tier two nations but the tier one nations are so established it’s tough to see how we can interstate them without diluting the product.

      I guess it comes down to what there is a market for, I think us rugby fans are guilty of think everyone everywhere loves rugby.

      Glad I’m not the one trying to organise it!!

    • Hi George.
      I really dont think South Africa would leave Super Rugby, I do believe they will drop to 3 Super Rugby teams and try have 2-3 in PRO14. South Africa has a large television base and it is run by one pay service broadcaster. So the contribution to any league is pretty big.
      Besides Derbys the New Zealand and South Africa games draw the biggest attention locally so from a pure revenue base I dont see South Africa pulling away from SANZAR and Super Rugby. Also I dont think New Zealand Rugby would want this either, besides Australia South Africa is the closest logistically for them.
      But I do know South Africa have created 2 new franchises to play North not in PRO14 but the talk is the Anglo-Welsh Cup.
      I think having 5 teams playing North would help keeping our players, because of the Euro and Pound so strong against the Rand.
      It will come down to money, as it always does.

  4. Hi Huw,

    Good honest read.
    I myself am a Leinster supporter. The thing with Leinster is that while we do in a lot of cases put out a second string team we have the quality and dept to do so and still win as was the case December 26th where we beat Munster’s first team. Score was 34-24 with quality tries from both sides. A key thing with Leinster and other Irish Pro 14 teams is that while rugby is our 4th most popular sport after Gealic Football, Hurling and soccer there is quite a lot of money in the rugby due to the financial support from IRFU and they also target wealthy business men for additional financial support to top up some of our top players’ salaries such is the case with Sexton. Also we look to keep out top players selling the idea of quality of life which includes less playing time and more recovery time from matches unlike the French and English clubs. In addition to this player can make a lot through sponsorship in Ireland which they would not make abroad as they would just be another number there rather than celebrity in Ireland.
    The Irish rugby set up is like being run as a not for profit business meaning that any profits they make can be put back into the teams.
    Looking at a positive side for the other Pro 14 teams the WRU are looking to do this as well by bringing back top players and providing top player part central contracts to them as is the case here. I read that the Scottish are in profit and the Italians has Conor O’Shea as the national coach and he was the person responsible for turned Harliquins fortunes around by focusing on youth development as well and he is doing the same with the Italian clubs over the last 18 months along with the likes of Mike Catt this I believe has helped them improve this season. I don’t really know enough about the South African set up to say a lot on them, but each team from what was the Pro 12 got 500,000 when the two South African teams joined and I believe those two teams will improve.
    Relating to South African players in Ireland there was Zaiane Kurchner in Leinster who has gone to a Welsh team and there is still richard strauss here. I also know Ulster have a few front row players along with two back row players Desley I think his name is and there is another who is world class, but injured a lot . Afraid I can’t think of his name.

    • Thanks mate

      Spot on about Leinster second team being good enough to win the league, you guys are a model club side in many ways. First team really just means internationals not being rested.

      I think wales are trying to copy Ireland and as a welsh fan I want us to. The thing is we currently have so much less money and a small population. There is a sort of new movement in the WRU now though. What’s happening at the dragons is sort of copying what you described with union ownership and wealthy business man topping up the funds. Maybe one day that will be the case with all four regions. I hope so anyway. I personally think wales could have 5 regions as there are none in north wales.

      Cheers, glad I didn’t offend you seeing as I talked about Leinster so much!

      • No offence taken what so ever. I always like to see what the other nations think.
        One quick question, in Ireland the view had been that one of the key reasons why the Welsh clubs don’t excel as well as your national team was that there was big friction between the WRU and the clubs, but that had recently been resolved and now there is expectation that they have started to work together. The hope is here now that this will give a chance for your clubs to progress. Is this through?

        • There has been huge progress and it looks like more change is on the way.

          I think if the scarlets continue to be successful and the dragons experiment works out then it will provide a feel good environment for welsh rugby that is needed to give the people in charge the impetus to put more effort in.

          I think post 2019 we’ll see a big change, not least because Gatland will be gone and he really is the king pin at the moment.

  5. Thanks mate

    Spot on about Leinster second team being good enough to win the league, you guys are a model club side in many ways. First team really just means internationals not being rested.

    I think wales are trying to copy Ireland and as a welsh fan I want us to. The thing is we currently have so much less money and a small population. There is a sort of new movement in the WRU now though. What’s happening at the dragons is sort of copying what you described with union ownership and wealthy business man topping up the funds. Maybe one day that will be the case with all four regions. I hope so anyway. I personally think wales could have 5 regions as there are none in north wales.

    Cheers, glad I didn’t offend you seeing as I talked about Leinster so much!

  6. Great article, Huw!

    The great advantage of the Pro14 is that it encourages the development of strong links between its teams and their national Unions. Scotland would not have been able to develop the strong team it currently has without the clubs and the clubs would not be able to be as successful as they have become without the support of the Union.
    As a Dundonian, I have no natural support for either Glasgow or Edinburgh so am really glad they don’t play all of their international players all of the time. This policy allows them to develop young players and helps Scotland have some depth in the national squad. With only two professional teams this is essential if we are to avoid a ‘boom and bust’ cycle.
    The Pro14 is by far the best competition in the northern hemisphere at providing international players for its Unions. New caps at international level already have experience of international play from the competition, especially with the addition of the South African teams.

    • Cheers Paul!

      Scottish rugby must be on such a high right now, you’ve had a great year internationally and Glasgow are destroying the Pro14.

      I don’t really know how much involvement the Scottish union has with the clubs, wasn’t there talk of them buying anothe club somewhere in England? Could Scotland support another pro team?

      • The plan in Scotland is to develop a ‘Super Six’ league of semi-pro teams. These teams will be 1 from each of the regions and two other franchises to be bid for. So that would be 1 Borders, 1 East, 1 West and 1 Highland team with two others, possibly Glasgow and Edinburgh based (though that is by no means a given). The current BT premiership teams would become totally amateur again and would also act as feeder teams for their regional ‘Super Six’ teams. This would also relieve Glasgow and Edinburgh of some of the strain of developing new talent for the national side. SRFU are looking to invest £500,000 in each of the ‘Super Six’ teams.

        As for SRFU’s involvement in Glasgow and Edinburgh, I believe they own a large stake in Glasgow and the controlling share of Edinburgh, but I may be wrong about that.

        Since I live in Tyneside, the idea of the SRFU buying Newcastle Falcons has a certain appeal… but I don’t think it would work 🙁

  7. I have heard a lot about problems with creating regions and provinces without the history and loyalty of clubs. I have watched some of the Mitre 10 cup in NZ where a lot of the old clubs still compete in a national competition, whilst the super rugby franchises compete in the professional competition. There seems to be a link between the amateur clubs and the professional franchises, as I have seen the likes of the Savea brothers, James Lowe and Dixon all playing in this club competition. Presumably the clubs are still amateur? I would love to know how this works and whether it could be replicated in other countries?

    • Current the way it works in wales is that the regions are a bit like catchment areas for schools where a certain club falls within the region geographically. These clubs act like development sides and provide the bulk of the playing pool for the regional side. These clubs play in the welsh premiership and are semi professional.

      The regions themselves were formed in 2003. The problem arises because a) these old clubs still have an existing fan base and b) because you have situations like Pontypool coming under the Cardiff blues region even though Pontypool and Cardiff are traditionally massive rivals. Wales is a small place anyway and people can be quite tribal about which town they’re from even if two towns are only 10 mins drive apart, but I guess that’s the same everywhere haha

      The benefit of this system is that it automatically creates a sort of pyramid structure that builds to the national side. I certainly think when America and Canada get professional rugby that’s the route they should go down. And maybe they won’t have as much of a problem with it because they’re staring from scratch

  8. On of the big problems for the Scottish teams is actually their stadia.

    Glasgow need somewhere bigger as Scotstoun is sold out for nearly every game which obviously means that many people that would like to are not getting access to the product.

    I’m not sure the Edinburgh experiment at Myreside has been a success. I understand that a 9/10ths empty Murrayfield lacked atmosphere but really Edinburgh should be attracting far bigger crowds than Myreside can cope with in any case. And it was great to see over 23,000 at the recent Edinburgh v Glasgow fixture. Maybe avoiding fixtures on freezing Friday evenings should be the rule of thumb?

    With four clubs based in Italy and South Africa, maybe the night games should be the ones being held there where the conditions are relatively benign?


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