Like many, I am a participant in my rugby club’s WhatsApp group.
Unlike many, the nature of my club is that it is neither tied to a town nor educational institute so it drags in waifs and strays from all walks of life, which means that there is a pretty broad range of professional clubs supported. That means English, French, Irish, South African, Kiwi and Aussie. We even had an Italian for a while. He was a good guy.
Like some, I have a more than passing interest in the local Pro 12 side – in this case Edinburgh.
This summer the group chat has been absorbed in talk of the Lions, the respective nation’s summer tours, the death of Australian rugby and just sneaking in, the introduction of South African clubs to the Pro 12. This started off as a bit of a fun chat about Edinburgh playing in Bloemfontein and the potential for a skite in Port Elizabeth. This resembles a stunning upturn in interest for the Pro 12, because the general consensus regarding it is usually this: it doesn’t matter.
Here lies the rub. The Pro 12 is an afterthought for all but the interested parties. Nobody in England/France/SA/NZ is tuning in to watch any of the games other than perhaps the odd big derby between the Irish sides. In fact, I’d say the majority of the rugby watching public in Scotland doesn’t care in the slightest about Pro 12 rugby. I’m sure the gents running this site will back up this assertion based on relative web traffic in 6 Nations and Autumn International weeks compared to, say, Edinburgh vs Dragons in mid October (yes, this is the trend – Ed).
So why does nobody care? I’ve picked up on 3 themes that I think are key. Obviously, money overrides all of this and more cash breeds more quality. However, we’re in a bit of a chicken and egg situation here given that the quality has to improve in order to get more money….
Anyway. Time to stick the boot in.
1. The Italians.
Let’s start off in the meanest way possible shall we? The Italian teams have added almost nothing other than numbers to the Pro 12. There comes a point when you have to ask: is their continued involvement benefitting anybody? It isn’t helping their international side as all the good players go to France or England and the ones left behind are trapped in an amateur set up wondering if their wages will be paid. Nobody cares about these teams, nobody wants them and even worse, they fatally weaken the league due to…
2. Weakened teams.
Ah yes, the Zebre by-week. While this is a bit of a joke, the reality is that none of the genuinely good teams looks at a trip to Italy as anything other than a break from the often howling weather found in most of the rugby outposts in this league. It’s not just the Italians either. As an Edinburgh supporter, I’m often left wondering who the hell is playing across the back line for Leinster, Munster, Ulster and the Scarlets. If we look at average finishing positions since the league expanded to 12, we can see that there’s a pretty rotten core 4 that inhabit the bottom of this pool.
None of these 4 teams deserve much of anything other than derision for their commitment to being below average. Worth mentioning that if you take away their freak year finishing 2nd in the league, Connacht would be around there too with an average of 8.33. Can anybody explain where the excitement comes from when a full 1/3 of the teams in the league are pre-ordained also-rans before the starting pistol is fired? No wonder nobody wants to watch.
What’s that? A lack of interesting games? Ah yes…
3. No meaningful rivalry.
Even 20 years in, I’m prepared to say that pro-rugby is still an infant. Particularly in Scotland and Wales, some of the manufactured franchises have struggled to get people buying into them. Fair play to Glasgow for managing, after 15 years of nomadic barrelling about in the darkness, to find a home and build a fan base. Incidentally, well done to Glasgow and Munster for also managing to get a match which actually has a bit of needle in it now which is great for the league. All it took was legally tackling the precious Conor Murray…
The truth is though that despite the best efforts, early to mid-season matches outside of derby games are frequently boring affairs. There isn’t an intensity of rivalry nor a sense of belonging that brings urgency to matches in the way that the established teams in England and France feel.
Some of this can be attributed to there being no reason for a person in Neath to have an opinion, positive or negative, about Ulster. This breeds apathy. As a fan in Scotland, you aren’t going to go into work and encounter a chippy Treviso fan. You’re not going to find a man that is dyed-in-the-wool Dragons. Your team plays, some points are exchanged and the whole circus moves on another week, possibly against one of the also ran’s. Speaking of which, anybody remember the utter nonsense of Edinburgh at Treviso on rivalry day? Ah the animosity between Edinburgh Woollen Mill and the United Colours of Bennetton…
Many will think these are harsh arguments, and they’d be right. Then again, it is possible to be harsh but fair. I feel like the expansion to Africa with a change to a conference system might work out in bringing in more revenue, interest, quality and rivalry.
Interested in taking thoughts on this below. I’m genuinely invested in the Pro 12 and hope it gets better. I’d like to start feeling like I watch it for enjoyment, rather than out of a misplaced loyalty to Edinburgh.