Gerry Thornley: Let’s hear it for the Pro14 revival
Champions Cup pool results show Celtic teams can match Anglo-French big guns
Munster celebrate as James Cronin scores a try against Castres Olympique at Thomond Park. Photograph: Dan Sheriedan/Inpho
Before we go anywhere, if the history of the Heineken Cup/European Champions Cup has taught us anything, it is that any one year in the competition is but a snapshot in history. It is insufficient evidence to start heralding the dawn of a new era.
So it was that when Toulouse beat Biarritz in an all-French final in Stade de France in 2010 that many good judges hailed this as the start of gallic dominance of the tournament. What happened next?
The following season Leinster regained their crown when recovering from a 22-6 deficit to beat Northampton 33-22, and retained the trophy in the first, and thus far, only all-Irish final when beating Ulster by 42-14 – a record winning margin in the final.
Far from heralding the dawn of years of French dominance, that 2010 final proved merely one of two interludes in what can now be viewed as a period of Irish dominance – Munster and Leinster winning five cups in a seven-year period.
It couldn’t last of course, and after a period of Toulon/French dominance (two of their three-in-a-row were in finals against Clermont) the group stages two seasons ago threw up an all Anglo-French quarter-final line-up – five from the Premiership and three from the Top 14.
It was the first time without one Celtic side in the last eight and so, many believed, this heralded an era of Anglo-French hegemony at European rugby’s top table.
Not a bit of it.
Last season, Leinster and Munster topped their pools to earn home quarter-finals (where they were joined for the first time by Glasgow) and also advanced to the semi-finals. This season Leinster and Munster have repeated the feat, and have been joined by the Scarlets in the last eight, with Pro14 teams hosting three of the four quarter-finals.
The French supply four of the last eight, whereas only Saracens squeezed into the quarter-finals as the eighth seeds. Three English clubs – Leicester, Northampton and Harlequins – actually propped up their pools.
For sure, this season’s group stages did not find the leading English sides in particularly rude health. Leicester are at a low ebb, Northampton were so out of sorts they even sacked Jim Malinder, and even Saracens hit an unusual mid-season dip in form.
The IRFU central contracting system and player management enabled Irish rugby to better handle the fallout from a Lions’ tour, which has been relatively negligible. In addition, we will also be told, and hear, ad nauseam that the Irish provinces are better equipped to peak performance levels for the three fortnightly blasts of European rugby. To a degree that is true. But boo-hoo. For that was always the case, and two seasons ago it didn’t prevent the English and French carving up the knock-out stages.
So what has changed since?
That 2015-16 European campaign came amid the fallout of the 2015 World Cup, when Leinster, Glasgow and the Ospreys, as bulk suppliers to Ireland, Scotland and Wales, suffered accordingly, while Munster and the Scarlets were also hit. So perhaps that European campaign can be viewed more as a Celtic blip.
Since then too, the Pro12 has changed appreciably, and not just in make-up to become a Pro14. Gregor Townsend’s inventive coaching had shown the way in the 2014-15 season as Glasgow won the first trophy by a Scottish team in the professional era.
The following season, Pat Lam’s Connacht conceivably took risk-taking rugby onto a new level with their astonishing and deserved title success in the aftermath of that 2015 World Cup. Then Wayne Pivac’s Scarlets came along with an equally inventive brand of rugby to become the first side in the tournament’s history to lift the trophy after winning away in both the semi-finals and final – and against Leinster and Munster at that.
So let’s hear it for the Pro14 then! The quality of the rugby has improved significantly in the last two or three years, on the back of good coaching and good players.
Hence, despite nothing like the financial resources and playing budgets of French sides, with billionaire backers who seemingly pay lip service to notions of salary caps, and even several of the Premiership sides who can liberally incur debts on an annual basis, the Pro14 sides punch way above their weight.
It may not always be presented as slickly, the backdrop is not always provided by what Philip Browne would call shiny new stadiums, the front-liners may not trudge out every week, but the ambition of the rugby is flourishing under new law interpretations and refereeing. Leinster and Munster, helped by the influence of Stuart Lancaster and Felix Jones/Rassie Erasmus/Johann van Graan, have caught the bug.
So it was that Leinster’s brand of rugby made the English champions Exeter look relatively blunt (as did Glasgow last Saturday) as well as big-spending Montpellier, and ditto the Scarlets against Bath and Toulon, and Munster against Leicester.
It has to be said that the same is true of La Rochelle in the Top 14, and Clermont are throwing all their eggs into Europe for the rest of the season.
Another word of caution. The Six Nations will place far more demands on Leinster, Munster and the Scarlets, none of whom will play en bloc together between now and the quarter-finals ten weeks’ hence. That Leinster-Saracens quarter-final comes two weeks after the Six Nations finale in Twickenham between England and Ireland. Some season-defining fortnight.
And this season’s Pro14 revival in the pool stages is still only a snapshot in history.