02 December 2013

Pro 12 dominance by Ireland not so good?

Before we turn our attention to the back-to-back Heineken Cup pool games next weekend, it is worth taking a look at the Pro 12 standings. After nine rounds of the tournament the table is beginning to take shape.

Irish teams dominate the top of the table with Munster, Leinster and Ulster in three of the top four play-off positions. Glasgow, who hold 3rd position, are on equal points with Ulster. But Ulster have a superior points difference and also more try bonus points and losing bonus points. Glasgow are ahead by virtue of winning one more game than Ulster.

It is less than two months ago that Glasgow were top of the league. But since then the Irish provinces have come through strongly. Ospreys are just two points behind Ulster in 5th spot and will still feel confident of making the play-offs at the end of the season. But 6th placed Scarlets are seven points adrift of the Ospreys, which will require a huge post-Christmas effort from them to force their way into a play-off spot.

Irish supporters will be happy that the three provinces are dominating the league with just one team from Scotland and Wales in the shake-up. But the Irish dominance in itself is not ideal for a league that is the bedrock of domestic rugby for the Celtic nations.

To date the Italian teams are unlikely play-off contenders, although lately Treviso have become much more competitive. Considering the Scots only supply two teams to the Pro 12, the same as Italy, one would expect them to be more competitive and consistent. It is only in the last two years that Glasgow have become contenders and in that time Edinburgh have slipped out of contention.

Unlike Ireland, quiet a few of their international players ply their trade outside of Scotland. But at the same time, with just two teams, they should be able to make a more consistent impact in the Pro 12.

The Welsh clubs, of which there are four like Ireland, have been punching well below their weight in the Pro 12. When you consider the success of the Welsh national team in recent years the same level of success has yet to be reflected in the Pro 12. The Ospreys did win the tournament in 2012, but when you measure the success of the Welsh teams as an entity they have had little impact in the league overall.

It is true the Welsh have begun to suffer the loss of a number of their top players to lucrative contracts overseas. That haemorrhage is set to continue unless the Welsh Rugby union can come up with the money to keep their top internationals in Wales. Weakened Welsh teams will increase Ireland’s dominance of the Pro 12, but a less competitive league is not good for any team or any country.

If there are less international players playing in the Pro 12, over time the standard of rugby in the league will decline.

If the standard of rugby declines in the Pro 12 it will mean Pro 12 teams will become less competitive in the Heineken Cup. A strong week in week out domestic competition is critical in ensuring Pro 12 teams are competitive at European level.

Considering Ireland currently retain most of their international players at home, a weakened Pro 12 competition will also have a negative impact on the national team. Irish teams dominating the Pro 12, because they are loaded up with international players, is a fools gold when it comes to competing in Europe or international level.

Of course, if a tranche of Irish internationals were to follow their Welsh counterparts to more lucrative rugby pastures it may actually help to keep Ireland more competitive at international level. That theory is based on the fact that Irish players who leave would be competing at a higher level on a weekly basis.

But as everybody knows there are risks abroad from burnout and career longevity that may offset any advantage from playing in a more competitive league.

The Celtic nations need a strong Pro 12 with every country supplying teams that are consistently competitive. The enjoyment the Irish supporters get from watching Munster, Leinster and Ulster dominate the Pro 12 may not be the best for Celtic nation rugby in the long term.