League offers valuable learning ground for young players with tangible rewards
Young players are benefiting from a competitive learning environment
Leinster’s Ian Madigan is a player who has thrived on the game time offered by the Pro12. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
On a superficial level no makeover is going to redefine the image of the RaboDirect Pro12 tournament in the European club rugby community. The Heineken Cup remains the more glamorous sibling, an unchallenged pre-eminence that will continue as long as the competition retains all of its current constituent members.
From a specifically Irish perspective it’s hardly a legitimate comparison because the four provinces must operate under the governance of the IRFU’s Player Management Programme that stipulates the amount of matches Irish squad members are permitted to play in a season. The provinces allocate primacy to the Heineken Cup and so the marquee names are rationed when it comes to the Pro12.
It has long being a bugbear for some of the Welsh and Scottish clubs – the Italians take a more pragmatic view in that they’re chasing points and don’t mind squaring off against “weakened” teams – are subjective in wanting the visiting Irish teams to be liberally sprinkled with household names to facilitate ticket sales.
Criticism is also directed from outside the tournament as the English clubs in particular bemoan the fact that qualification for the Heineken Cup is not drawn specifically from the final Pro12 standings.
They argue that it allows the Pro12 clubs to rest front-line players in the build-up to European Cup matches whereas they are not afforded the same latitude in the Aviva Premiership because qualification depends directly on final standings.
The IRFU and by extension the provinces are correct not to worry about the aesthetics of the Pro12 format. They can put forward the fact that Irish teams have provided the winners on seven occasions in the 12 years that the tournament, including previous incarnations, has been staged. The end, for the most part, justifies the means.
What the Pro12 has principally given Irish rugby is a valuable learning environment for young players and the benefits are tangible.
Take Leinster’s Ian Madigan’s case as an example; it works just as well with Simon Zebo (Munster), Luke Marshall (Ulster) and Kieran Marmion (Connacht) as case studies, names taken from a substantial list.
In the 2010-2011 season Madigan started seven matches in the – as it was then – Magners League and came on as a replacement nine times. He came off the bench twice in Heineken Cup matches. The following year he started 15 games, participating in 21, and in Europe started one game and came on in four more.
Last season the talented outhalf played 23 matches (186 points) in the Pro12, a run-on in 18. He started four Heineken Cup matches, came on in two more and played three Amlin Challenge Cup knockout games. He made his debut for Ireland as a replacement against France in the Six Nations championship and added three more caps, two as the starting outhalf in the summer tour of North America.
The Pro12 has allowed Madigan to refine and develop his game, taking responsibility as Leinster’s primary playmaker and outhalf for much of that tournament. The strides he’s made are evident for all to see.