Pro12 in better nick than new European Champions Cup
Schedule should afford Ireland a better opportunity than last season to win the Six Nations
Jonny Wilkinson (left), the Toulon captain, holds the Heineken Cup with team-mate Bryan Habana after their victory over Saracens in the last Heineken Cup final, at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. The competition has been replaced this seaspon by the European Champions Cup. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
It’s a curious case indeed when we embark upon another rugby season with the Pro12 seemingly in better nick than its pan-European counterpart.
In contrast to the Pro12, though, the much trumpeted European Champions Cup is but six weeks away and still has no commercial partners, no French television deal, only the dates and times for the first two rounds, no refereeing kit, no match ball, no president, no board chairman and other missing minor details.
Of course, it is the advent of the European Champions Cup which has in part galvanised the Pro12. That the Champions Cup will have 20 teams competing rather than 24 will make qualification harder for the likes of Connacht, Edinburgh, the Dragons and Zebre – who along with the Cardiff Blues missed the cut this season.
It should also be harder to win, but a significant change in scheduling might make it harder still for the Irish teams. While the pool schedule has remained the same, the knockout stages are being run off with indecent haste in a sop to the parochial French clubs who want May devoted to their cherished championship.
Hence, this season the ultimate champions of Europe will have to win a quarter-final, semi-final and final within six weeks of the Six Nations as opposed to the 10-week period which applied previously.
This will be a bigger ask for bulk suppliers to international squads, noticeably Leinster, than of big-spending, multi-national squads who make negligible contribution to their country’s international team, ie Toulon.
The flip side is the provinces work to the advantage of the Ireland team in a way while the French clubs work against les bleus; a particularly relevant point one year and two weeks away from the 2015 World Cup, and the Ireland-France Pool C finale in the Millennium Stadium on October 11th next year.
Viewed in that light, Ireland’s win in Paris last March went beyond merely clinching the Six Nations title against their main European bugbears and, similarly, the visit of the French to the Aviva on Valentine’s Day carries the most resonance of any fixture this season.
A la 2009 and other previous title successes, this is the bi-annual schedule that should afford Ireland a better opportunity than last season to win the Six Nations as the other half of the big two, England, are also due in Dublin.
The November Test programme will be viewed more than ever in the context of the World Cup, with particular attention on the all-conquering All Blacks, who will no doubt strengthen their standing as favourites to retain the World Cup. They are currently 13/8.
For better or for worse, and given the history of the fixture perhaps for the better, Ireland avoid the almighty ones this November, instead hosting South Africa and Australia either side of Georgia in November.
On the club front, the Ulster Bank League have belatedly welcomed back the concept of play-offs to decide the Division 1A title, while there are 46 Friday Nights Lights or local derbies liberally dispersed throughout the season across all four divisions.