Gerry Thornley: Rainbow Cup fiasco leaves us with a dog’s dinner of a competition
High-risk South African strategy should have been abandoned a long time ago
Accommodating the Rainbow Cup while shortening and devaluing the Pro14 was always a high-risk strategy.
Confirmation that the Rainbow Cup will proceed without the four South African teams is imminent, and ought to cause huge embarrassment for the organisers of this one-off competition and the Guinness Pro14.
It had always been fanciful to think that the Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and Lions would be able to travel to this part of the world and compete against teams in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy in the current pandemic.
A little over a week ago, reports in the South African media had suggested the four franchises had been advised to suspend their visa applications over issues that arose around clearance from the UK government to be based in Bristol. They had also explored the possibility of quarantining themselves in Croatia or Jersey without success.
Yet last week the organisers had doubled down by insisting that other bases were being explored and issued kick-off dates and times for the first three rounds, which were almost exclusively made up of derby matches, while promising the South African sides would travel north for rounds four, five and six.
The South African sides, who will play two derbies on the opening weekend in May while the European semi-finals were being held, would thus have had a three-week break with which to fulfil quarantine obligations before the first of three weekends in Europe. Each of the other European sides would have hosted one game apiece against South African sides.
Although not released publicly, Leinster were to host the Bulls on May 29th, with Munster at home to the Stormers a week later in round five. Ulster were scheduled to play the Lions in round 6 on Friday, June 11th, with Connacht at home to the Sharks a day later.
One understands that in these difficult times sports organisations have to think on their feet and roll with the punches
Alternative fixtures will now be rescheduled to fill those cancellations so that each of the 12 teams in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy will play six matches apiece. Ala the Pro14, they’ll presumably be divided into two groups of six with the respective winners competing in the final on the weekend of June 19th.
It is a dog’s dinner of a competition now.
There may well have been financial imperatives at work in fast-tracking the four South African franchises into what it is to be hoped will become a Pro16 in 2021-22 and the organisers will insist that remains on course to start next September. Although with the world still in the grip of Covid-19, as that’s only five or six months away, who’s to say?
The South African Rugby Union pay a participation fee in order to take part in the Pro14/16 and it is unclear whether any of this estimated €6 million per season has been affected by what amounts to a Rainbow Cup now taking place in the two hemispheres and ne’er the twain shall meet.
One understands that in these difficult times sports organisations have to think on their feet and roll with the punches, while being inventive and have contingency plans in place.
The Pro14 organisers have had the additional logistical difficulties of overseeing a cross-border tournament with teams from four different countries, in contrast to the Top 14 and Premiership, which more than ever have looked like vastly superior competitions this season.
But why then take the risk of bringing in another four teams from a fifth country on the other side of the world for a less than meaningful hybrid competition?
For accommodating the Rainbow Cup while shortening and devaluing the Pro14 was always a high-risk strategy and should have been abandoned a long time ago, in time to save the Pro14. Instead, the organisers of the Pro14 have left the broadcasters, teams, players and supporters short-changed.
As we wrote in The Irish Times in early January, “the situation in South Africa could make the Rainbow Cup a risk not worth taking”, adding: “Should it come to pass that the Rainbow Cup is called off without a ball being kicked at short notice, the Pro14 organisers could be left with plenty of egg on their faces if by then their abbreviated 2020-21 (Guinness PRO14) tournament is already completed.”
And so it has come to pass.
They still had until the third weekend in March to abandon the Rainbow Cup and salvage something with a more complete Pro14 season which, of course, was in reality a Pro12 before next season becoming a Pro16.
As if the tournament hasn’t had enough changes in format, structures, TV coverage, sponsors and names, but might we suggest one more? Do away the moveable feast that is the number, be it 12, 14 or 16. Just call it ProRugby or something.
Instead of abandoning ship before the middle of March, by doing away with two quarter-finals and both semi-finals the organisers instead denied Ulster and Connacht home quarter-finals and, as it transpired, the Ospreys and Scarlets a place in the play-offs, as well as shortchanging the supporters and broadcasters of a proper climax to the tournament.
Not only that, but in sacrificing six more full rounds of games, the organisers also rendered the vast bulk of the last 44 matches (save for four Irish derbies) in the conference stages from early January onwards utterly redundant in terms of competing for the play-offs and ultimately the title.
It could be argued that so poorly have been pretty much all bar the Scarlets of the non-Irish sides, they scarcely deserved to have any tangible interest in the knock-out stages. But even so, why disabuse them of having any interest in the knock-out stages by trimming them to just two teams instead of six?
They then shoehorned the Leinster-Munster decider into March 27th, the weekend immediately after the completion of the Six Nations, but in fast-forwarding the Grand Final they denied the Pro14 a grand finale.
Much of the run-in became meaningless and, for what, a devalued Rainbow Cup?
We hate to say we told you so, but . . .