The autumn internationals have just finished and the 6 Nations is only a few short weeks away. The Pro14 though has pressed on regardless of the wounds that international rugby call-ups have inflicted upon it. By the end of the season, six rounds of the PRO14 will have been influenced by International rugby.
Bluntly that means that nearly one in every three rounds (28%) of a competition that chief executive Martin Anayi boasts of having “270 internationals” within its ranks and that is at the “forefront of the game’s growth” are being detrimentally affected by another ‘competition’ – and possibly even more than one, as teams rested any fit players they did have ahead of the recent European games.
That’s quite a number and there is no doubt that it has an effect – but is it detrimental?
In “Week minus 1” (the one outside the window) of the autumn internationals, Edinburgh turned up in Zebre minus 10 of their Scottish Internationals. Zebre had all of theirs and took the capital side to the cleaners 34-13. Is that a result you would have expected under normal circumstances, even given Edinburgh’s Italian phobia?
In Week 1 we were treated to a top of conference A clash between Ospreys and Glasgow. Glasgow were minus 13 internationals and Ospreys 7. Is that the game fans of these two sides wanted to see or perhaps, more importantly, was that what Premier Sports have paid so handsomely to show on their shiny TV channel?
In the same week Leinster, shorn of at least 8 international players travelled to Port Elizabeth to face a Southern Kings side that were completely unaffected by the AI’s. They still won but only by 4 points whilst conceding 4 tries. That gave Kings a two-point boost that lifted them up a place in conference B. A likely margin against arguably the best side in Europe? I think not. It might not be crucial at the end of the season for Leinster but Dragons who dropped to the bottom of the conference as a result might feel differently.
In the last weekend of the AI’s what looked on paper like a reserve team match between Leinster and Ospreys took place at the RDS which Leinster won somewhat comfortably 52-7. Again a home win would have been most people’s prediction even had both sides been at full strength, but the last time these two sides met Ospreys won 32-18. Yes it was in Wales but still that’s some turnaround.
In the same week Edinburgh were forced into a ridiculous Sunday night game in Newport minus 9 internationals. The reason for which is, to quote Martin Anayi, “to ensure supporters don’t have to choose between club and country as the autumn internationals draw to a close.” Thanks Martin, I appreciate it but I’m not sure the players welcomed the long trip back from Wales in the wee hours of Monday before they headed for Cork to play Munster on the following Friday.
Clear evidence of the effect and if it were across the board then you could argue that’s ok – but it’s not. The South African sides are untouched and the Italians and Scots with only two sides providing the bulk of their international sides are affected more than the Welsh and Irish who have 4 clubs each to share the load.
The maths is simple.
In the PRO14 12 clubs provide players for 4 countries – Scotland, Ireland, Italy and Wales. An international squad varies but this Autumn, Scotland had 38 players in theirs. 8 of those play for clubs outwith the Pro14 so using that as a baseline (30 x 4 divided by 12) those 12 clubs provide 10 international players per squad each on average.
In the countries that have only two clubs that becomes an average of 15 players per club.
If you want to play for England you have to play in England and that means their 12 clubs only provide on average 3 players per club. In addition, the Gallagher Premiership has two less affected fixtures over the international windows when the Premiership Cup, largely used as a development tool, takes over.
English clubs play 22 games in a regular season, so combined with their league structure and the breaks for the cup their league is only affected 18% of the time by international call-ups. That’s a significantly smaller number than the 28% hit that the PRO14 takes.
So, whose fault is it and what can be done to address it?
The Autumn Internationals and the 6 Nations were here long before the PRO14 in its various guises. So on one hand you could argue that it’s the expansion of that organisation that has created this scenario. As all four home unions now climbing on the ‘outside the window’ bandwagon to swell their coffers, they have undoubtedly exacerbated the issue.
There are some cracking games in the Pro14 during these periods. The Kings v Scarlets game where they shared 75 points and Scarlets secured a last gasp victory is one example. It also gives young players a chance to make an impact. To pick just one, Stafford McDowall has been outstanding for Glasgow in the absence of Huw Jones, Alex Dunbar and Pete Horne on various weekends. On the whole though I can’t help feeling that it merely distorts the competition and gives those that would criticise it ammunition with which to do so.
Ironically the solution may be in further expansion: a 16 team single conference where you play everyone once either at home or away and a further away/home game against the teams from your own country. Assuming the extra teams come from South Africa the Scottish teams could play their additional games against the Italian sides. Everyone would play 18 games in the regular season. This would free up 3 weekends.
That alone would take the 28% crossover to 16% and if the season was expanded by one more week into June then we are looking at 11%. In a congested fixture list and taking player welfare into account that might be the best we can hope for. Questions of fairness may remain but I would maintain that would be “more fair” than the status quo.
I’m an Edinburgh supporter and I also support Scotland. I don’t want to see the Scotland squad named and my first thought being, ‘well that’s Edinburgh stuffed this week’. I could even be, and I’m sure such a thing exists, an Edinburgh fan who isn’t Scottish. Imagine how that person felt as Edinburgh left Parma with their tails between their legs?
I understand that the unions pay the piper and therefore call the tune but it would be good if they and the PRO14 could get together and decide on a tune that suited them, the players and the supporters. It would benefit everyone.