Organisers putting positive spin on rebranded Pro14
It remains to be seen whether new South African entrants add much to the mix
Iain Henderson (Ulster), Dean Budd (Bennetton Treviso), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Isa Nacewa (Leinster), CJ Velleman (Southern Kings), Mark Bennett (Edinburgh) and Cory Hill (Newport Gwent Dragons) at the launch of the Guinness PRO14 season at the Aviva. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
From a Pro14 press release: “It promises to be a sensational season . . . ”
Guinness and Sky Sports certainly hope so. The good folk behind Europe’s fourth most lucrative rugby competition are understandably putting a sensationalist slant on this rebranded league.
Right now it all feels a little farcical with the organisers, to paraphrase Leo Cullen, making things up as they go along.
The latest reincarnation of the old Celtic League may prove a master stroke by CEO Martin Anayi. Or it might just have added two more dud squads to make up to six teams yet to show any evidence of being competitively sustainable entities.
Maybe Edinburgh under Richard Cockerill’s whip will get their act together. Funding suggests otherwise. The same goes for the Dragons and their equally shrewd appointment of Bernard Jackman (despite rugby being the national sport in Wales they were unable to unearth a home-grown coach).
Anayi also made a robust defence of the Italian teams, bolstered by Michael Bradley’s return from Georgian exile – rescued from obscurity by Conor O’Shea only to be lumped with a near impossible task – as Zebre coach.
“We went to see Zebre and Treviso, ” said Anayi. “Did you know the Benetton family own Treviso outright? The founder of the Benetton group, Luciano Benetton, is the third richest person in Italy. He has had a world championship winning Formula One team, he has had a European championship basketball and volleyball team. The only sporting franchise he still owns, cause he loves it, is rugby.
“And they have signed four fantastic players this off season.”
But Luke McLean and Filo Paulo moved to London Irish.
“We need to give Treviso the ability to be a successful rugby club by giving them stability. If you keep on threatening to take that away how are they going to sign players? How are they are going to get better players than Marty Banks?”
Banks, a Kiwi outhalf, signed for Treviso last season but never actually left New Zealand.
Last season Zebre was so badly broken that the Italian Federation had to swallow them up. They registered three victories from 22 outings with a points differential of -455.
“For us it is an expansion into a new market,” explained IRFU chief Philip Browne a the Pro14 launch a fortnight ago. Browne was speaking with his Pro14 hat on, even though he sits atop of a union that will permit Ireland coach Joe Schmidt to take his primary Ireland players out of this bright new venture for several key fixtures and possibly the South African tours that are supposed to make the expansion worthwhile.
“And it gives the South Africans a chance to explore the European market. When you combine both there are some real opportunities there commercially, which can only benefit the teams involved.”
“I think it is all very positive,” Browne continued. “It is going to be a great experience for players, for fans and for our sponsors as well. So it’s a great news story all round.”
Positives aplenty. This is what happens when the game is starved of a proper off season. Leinster were back in before Ireland’s June tour of Japan had ended. There is physiological value to stretched out preparation but the wonder is how long before the mental energy levels are drained dry.
Anyway, let the games begin and roll all the way to the finale in Dublin on May 26th.
The excitement is impalpable.