Is the PRO14’s credibility in international windows becoming an issue?

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.

Tags: ,

Edinburgh supporter and former tighthead whose clubs include Edinburgh Wanderers, Corstorphine, Lothian & Borders Police and The Co-optimists. I’m a much better player now than I ever was when I actually took to the field.
Follow Sandy on twitter @bigparahandy

23 comments on “Is the PRO14’s credibility in international windows becoming an issue?

  1. JP07 on

    In short yes. Im a Scot who has lived in England for the past decade. The bulk of rugby media I consume is English as I have to actively seek out Scottish or Celtic coverage. The P12 was derided by the rugby media and public generally down here for a number of reasons: poor crowds, lack of international players, scheduling and the perceived and actual relative weakness of many sides (probably half the league) compared to the English Premiership. Since the P14 came into place it has picked up a lot of fans south of the border, the rugby media while cynical at the concept (as many of us were) largely agree that it has been successfully in revitalising the competition and there is certainly more positivity and respect for the competition. This maybe a by product of the Celtic nations also developing into international forces while England have floundered. However the single biggest criticism and element which turns neutral fans off of the P14 in a way which doesnt happen with Super Rugby for example is the matches lacking international players, in particular the scheduling of matches during international windows and in particular the scheduling of big games like Glasgow Cardiff (I think it was Cardiff) on the weekend of a Scotland Wales test (admittedly outside of the test window). The criticisms around rotation of squads in the P14 have largely gone away since the Celtic nations started outperforming England as that is seen as a major contributing factor to the national success however when you have Leinster Munster derbies and Leinster put out a youth team despite playing almost a full strength side against a Italian team the week before it does damage the integrity f the competition (If I remember correctly this happened in Jan 2017). I watch a lot of premiership and less but still a fair amount of P14 (cant be bothered with Super Rugby) and the quality of the prem during international windows is higher.

    • JP on

      Continued… as the English teams share the weight of loss of international players across 6-8 sides. They also contineu to do well for crowds whereas the P14 dont, perhaps its becaause as smaller countries a larger proportion of club fans can get to the national stadium, I dont know. To conclude we now have a competition which is respected and despite my cynicism initially the inclusion of quality Bok teams like the Sharks will increase this but its important to remember that it is a product and that product is damaged when sides are stripped bare by the internationals of both players and crowds. From a personal perspective the reason I still prefer the premiership as a neutral is the bulk of prem games feel like a spectactle, good crowds in appropriately sized stadia creating an atmosphere. While there are exceptions (Sale Sharks in particular) this often isnt the case in the P14 and certainly not during international windows. I know some on here will likely deride the focus on English perception but they are the largest rugby market, sell the P14 to them and its more money coming to our clubs. Its also interesting that a P14 like structure is being whispered in response to an expanded ring fenced premiership

  2. Fraser on

    While I agree with the article for the most part, the counter argument is that clubs know they will be losing a number of international players for these weeks, and should have assembled a squad that can still field a decent team without them – whether through young talent, senior players that have retired from international rugby, foreign players that won’t be affected etc.

    Particularly, it is a great opportunity for young players to get game time and helps their development as well as giving them exposure to show what they can do – look at Hastings, G.Horne etc. for Glasgow last year for example.

    I actually quite like this test of squad depth, as teams that can cope with this and still win games in my opinion deserve to get points as a result.

    The issue as I see it is more the one of different teams being dramatically more or less affected – Scotland being a prime example – but having a good system for players outside Scotland to be selected, and letting people like Russell and Hogg leave can help a lot with this.

    The question is, should the Pro14 change to make it easier for certain teams, or should those teams change their approach to reduce the impact of the international window which has always been there?

  3. Stu2 on

    Whether you like it or no the national teams are the main focus for Ire, Wal, Sco and Italy – that’s the bottom line. It ultimately pays for the clubs.

    One of the selling points to players in these countries is they will not be flogged to death – they will play fewer games that the pros in England and France and their welfare is the priority.

    If that results in games are missing a host of international players then so be it – I’d rather they were around for a few years longer than watching them in Pro 14 match away to Zebre.

    We currently only have 2 teams – more game time for our young players is not only good for them – it’s good for the whole of rugby.

    However I think it would probably be better if you addressed more of your concerns to Cockerill than the unions as he has certainly been a huffy wee child at times this season and used selection to make points.

    Lets not go down the English and French route – their clubs will ruin the sport if allowed to.

    • Sandy Smith on

      Stu2, whilst I would agree about the international sides being the main focus for the unions there has to be a balance. If its all International then how do we get coaches and players to come to Scottish pro sides if they know that the only ambition of those teams is to provide players for the international side. Equally why would you want to support a rugby team whose existence was merely to provide a platform to get to international rugby? Winning teams attract bigger crowds as is patently obvious at Scotstoun.
      My point, which I felt was quite clear, was that teams within the Pro14 are not affected equally by the international call ups which means that the competition can be distorted. It’s great to see young players get a chance but i’d rather see them a few at a time than all in one go like they do in the Premiership Cup.
      We will have to agree to differ on Cockerill. I say outspoken at clear inequities that have adversely affected the team he coaches and I applaud that. Selection has been dictated by SRU rest protocols and injuries.

      • Stu2 on

        It’s never been all international – our pro sides have always had NSQ players. But there has to be an acceptance that the primary reason for our sides is to furnish our test side with enough quality players to be successful.

        You do this by being successful yourself so it isn’t to the detriment of your own side – but the fewer games your players play the better and longer their careers will be.

        I really dont think our clubs are being undermined by their international commitments – if anything the opposite is true.

  4. Big Al on

    In previous years I would have agreed with this but I think things are changing. Glasgow played really well and were brilliant to watch when the internationals were away. You can see strength in depth building and guys getting a chance to show what they can do. Normally they would have to wait for injuries to get in and build experience. It is creating a real headache for the coach when he has so many players in form and raring to go. You could argue that every week Glasgow has several fit internationals on the books that don’t make the match day 23.

    I can see a slightly different argument from Edinburgh fans as they don’t have the same strength in depth in some areas. Although they are well serviced in some others.

    The pro14 is a bit of a marathon and Ireland have protected their top internationals for years and its worked for them. I can see us doing a bit more of that in the future and I think we’ll just have to accept it.

    In terms of respect from France and England for the Pro14 that really depends on how well the Pro14 teams do in head to heads in the European Champions Cup and how well the international teams are going. Respect tends to get earned on the rugby pitch and not in a league structure.

  5. sceptic 9 on

    its a mess. Better squads cost more money, we already have significantly lower budgets than the Irish never mind French and English.
    16 teams over 2 conferences is a solution of sorts (but a tilted competition where who you get home or away can decide the outcomes at season end) and – does it mean reduced season tickets prices? Does it mean lower sponsporship, and TV income?It does mean fewer games (good for players, much less good for fans and overall income)

    The answer of course is a globally restructured season, instead of one built around the needs of the Southern Hemisphere

    • FF on

      Not sure where you get the idea the season is built around the needs of the SH. World rugby has been trying to look for a viable world season for a decade but the biggest barrier is the insistence that the 6N shall not be moved and then fitting the English Premiership around this immovable object.

      Problem is English rugby has no control over premiership so can’t dictate how it fits in with test calendar or ensure test rugby, then European rugby is prominent above the domestic league.

      • sceptic 9 on

        autumn tours do not affect SH seasons., big impact on NH leagues. World Cup, moved to affect them less and us more.

        Personally I’d move the 6N as part of a bigger package, but not without moves from the SH – you won’t find any proposals that move an SH competition. Given the SH would be even more broke without autumn tours you’d think they would be smarter.

      • Stu2 on

        It really isn’t – the most important thing is to organically grow the competition in the countries involved.

        The teams from the league the allegedly dont respect are currently pumping them in the Euro competitions – I know which league model I prefer.

  6. stu2 on

    One thing that I overheard the BT commentators talking about at the weekend as they were marketing next weekends return of the premiership, is they have fallen into that very English trap of thinking their league is the best in the world – their football brethren are worse of course.

    Quite clearly the premiership is not – as we can see from the Euro competitions they nearly ruined in an effort to squeeze more money out of. Their clubs are debt burdened and with the exception of a couple – dependant on sugar daddies.

    Trying to repeat the wendyball model in rugby is moronic – but only when it truly hits them in the pocket will they finally see sense – we only have to hope they dont destroy the whole of rugby before that happens.

  7. Andy Render on

    It does affect it, of course it does but this then brings in the skill of the coaches and the recruiting team to build a robust squad and as said in the article it allows the fringe players to shine. If the league was a straight winner takes all situation a couple of losses during international windows would be more significant but with the playoffs team I don’t think it is as big of an issue. Another thing to consider is that teams are looking to have as many hoe games as they can to maximise revenue – 11 (or 10) home games appears to be about right, the 18 game model might not support string squads either. the calendar is congested and I guess we just have to cope. By the way the 4th international idea in November is rubbish.

  8. Alanyst on

    Yes, affected, but really what are the other options?

    I think Super Rugby stops completely for the June internationals….leaving most fans with nothing to go to for a month or more. A lot probably never come back. I dont think thats a good option.

    Derbies might reduce the “bias” but these rightly should be highlights in the calendar.

    “International” player numbers could be restricted during windows, but who’s an international?

    I am fairly happy with things as they are and as a few prople have said, teams just need to work on their depth.

    Maybe a fallow week between international windows and Europe would help..

    • Stu2 on

      We have to get ourselves out of the football mindset where there is a match every single week – the collisions in modern rugby are just too big to expect players to play 30+ games a season.

      If Embra or Weegie fans are missing rugby at times may I suggest they pop down to a local club, take in a match and spend some money at the bar.

      • Alanyst on

        I think regular games is important…not necessarily weekly, but no month long gaps.

        Individual players should play 4 on +1 off, so..17 of 21 weeks plus any finals….in itself manageable

        Europe is the bigger problem, the January rounds are often a bit patchy as many teams are essentially out already…why not go to four pools of five, two home, two away, top 2 go through to QFs…tough luck if you get a tough draw.

        Pro14 definitely could drop from 21+3, to 19+3, by losing the “extra” derby games….not good for the budget maybe. As Sandy says a 16-team league could use a different structure….15 rounds with extra derby game(s) and possibly extended finals.

  9. Blake Westwood on

    Was this article written by the Chief Executive of the English Premiership. This bias and hatred shown by you towards what is clearly the best league in Europe is ridiculous. The Pro 14 will likely have 5 teams in the Champions Cup quarter finals. Ridiculous article.

    • Rory Baldwin on

      I think you may need to consult a dictionary as to the meaning of the word “hatred”, and possibly “bias” too. While you are at it, a few of you could look up “calm” and possibly “polite”.

    • Sandy Smith on

      Wow, I’m a guest writer here so I’ll refrain from responding in a similarly rude fashion. Thank you for your considered response.

  10. Blake Westwood on

    The Pro 14 has the perfect balance between matches commencing during international weekends and those which do not. With 6 out of 21 rounds occurring during international weekends this means by in-large teams have their best players to choose from for the majority of matches whilst giving younger players more than enough chances to gain experience.

    You would have a point if there was no play-off system but with 6 play-off places available your argument is completely invalid. You could argue without those 6 games being affected by missing international players that some teams which just missed out would sneak into the play-offs. But are you seriously suggesting that a team who were unable to claim one of those 6 play-off spots would challenge for the Pro14 title against the best teams in the competition, if they had not been missing their international players for 6 matches, because if you are, you are deluded.

    Reducing the amount of matches affected by the international window to 11% would massively impact on young players coming through. Imagine how many chances Darcy Graham, Kinghorn, George Horne, the Fagerson brothers etc. would’ve got if that was in place.

    By having 6 matches affected by internationals it encourages teams to properly invest in their academy system. 1 or 2 matches being affected would cause less funding to go to to the academies.

  11. Andy N on

    Comparing Pro14 to the AP or Top14 is a thankless and probably futile task because you’re not comparing like for like – there are too many fundamental differences. Whether it’s finances, structure of the clubs, influence of the union, player demographics, infrastructure etc, the only really real conclusion we can draw is that there are clearly several ways to approach the running of a professional rugby competition, and to begin to try and draw anything more meaningful from it is going to be a minefield.

    The Pro14 allows us to showcase rugby talent and its absolutely key that there are fixtures during the season where younger players have an opportunity to step up. Ends justifies the means.

Comments are closed.