The Pro12 may be finally finding its feet

Advent of Sky deal will be a huge boon for the League

Ulster’s Ruan Pienaar scores a try on their way to  victory over Cardiff last Friday night to secure a Pro 12  semi-final place at home at Ravenhill. Photograph: Inpho

Ulster’s Ruan Pienaar scores a try on their way to victory over Cardiff last Friday night to secure a Pro 12 semi-final place at home at Ravenhill. Photograph: Inpho

Tue, May 7, 2013, 12:00

Is the one-time Celtic/Magners League now coming of age in its guise of the Rabo Direct Pro 12, or at any rate finding its feet? The League has not been without its teething problems since it was founded in 2000, and repeated changes in composition and format, as well as sponsors and TV coverage, have left it in an almost permanent state of flux, but this is the most settled period of the league’s history and it’s all the better for that.

As the poor relation of its older, more established and wealthier French and English counterparts, the league is finally beginning to show signs of health, and that this has come about in a time of relative calm is not unrelated. A league needs time, for sure, to build a sense of history, but in the interim it also requires an element of certainty and consistency.

For example, the current format to incorporate the expansion of the league to a dozen teams with the addition of the Italians is now three seasons old, with this being the fourth year in a row of the top four play-offs. With ‘home’ advantage rewarding the higher placed teams, there are still gains to be made in topping the table, even if Ulster have been compelled to nominate the RDS for the final.

In this, the league’s smallness is a strength, for it ensures a fairer if financially less rewarding play-off system than having, say, the Premiership final in Twickenham or the French Top 14 semi-finals on neutral grounds followed by the final in Stade de France.

Brand identity
Accordingly, the brand identity of the league is stronger than it’s ever been, and the advent of Sky Sports as the league’s main television broadcasters from 2014-15 onwards is a huge boon. While the details have still to be ironed out, specifically which other broadcasters will remain involved, viewers will have a more regular main supplier. And we know from Sky’s coverage of the Heineken Cup that their production values and energy should only portray the league in a more positive light. If Sky can sell Sale v London Welsh, they can sell a Rabo Pro12 game.

Furthermore, at a stroke, the league will now be reaching out to a pan-British, Irish and Italian audience, in effect adding England’s population of 53 million to the 14 million of the Celtic countries (six million in Ireland, three million in Wales and five million in Scotland). With the best will in the world, having a big Irish derby or Welsh derby on TG4 or S4/C is not reaching out to even the widest domestic audience.

Admittedly the league has seen a 27-28 per cent increase in TV audiences and following the lead of the Six Nations. The Pro12 is also the first official club competition in the world to have its own You Tube channel, and over 600,000 people have downloaded clips.

Attendances at games are irritatingly falsified by the league’s policy of including all sold tickets, ie non-attending season ticket holders, but judged by their own yardstick, the Pro12 hit the one million mark in round 21, a round earlier than last year, and ‘attendances’ have already exceeded last season’s. All in all, considerably more people are enjoying the league, whether as paying customers or television viewers.

All positive ideas are welcome and, for example, the Welsh double header at the Millennium Stadium drew 36,000 spectators, whereas there were 16,000 at the same two fixtures last season. For sure, this underlines the comparative strength and fans’ sense of identity with the Irish teams, given Leinster-Munster can fill out the Aviva.

Double header
They may have been in existence considerably longer than the more contrived marriages of the Welsh regions, but that doesn’t fully explain the phenomenon of the provinces. In any event, there is surely the potential in the future for an Irish-Welsh double header in the Millennium or the Aviva Stadium.

Admittedly, from an Irish perspective say, there are about 10 to 12 very serious games, be they the six interpro derbies – which have grown significantly over the course of the league’s history, even if some of this for sure is on the back of the Heineken Cup – and a few more along with the play-off games.

Furthermore, the Heineken Cup successes which the Irish have enjoyed would not have happened without the developmental aspect of the league. All that said and done, while league organisers can proudly cite the presence of 24 of the 37 Lions coming from the RaboPro12, this season’s performances in Europe (two quarter-finalists and one semi-finalist) compare poorly to last season. Then, the Rabo Pro12 provided five of the last eight, three of whom reached the semis and two the final.

The player drain and worsening competitiveness of the Welsh regions and their ongoing rift with the WRU are a major source of concern. And for all Treviso’s improvements, Italy’s ‘second’ team has again been cast adrift.

Dark clouds loom in the shape of the future format of the Heineken Cup, specifically the Anglo-French demands for reduced Celtic/Italian places and the effect this may have on qualification from the Pro12. Conceivably though, a more merit-based qualification process could add intrigue further down the table.

In other words, even the league’s biggest threat might actually be a boon.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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