Round of dead rubbers a fitting finale for Rainbow Cup

Teams, supporters, sponsors and broadcasters have been short-changed

Benetton  cannot be caught at the top of the table, rendering Munster’s trip to Zebre on Friday evening meaningless. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Benetton cannot be caught at the top of the table, rendering Munster’s trip to Zebre on Friday evening meaningless. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Ultimately, the Rainbow Cup got the finale, whatever about the final, it deserved. The cancellation of the Ospreys-Benetton game due to three positive Covid cases in the Ospreys’ ranks, thereby guaranteeing Benetton a place in the scheduled north v south final in their Stadio Monigo ground on Saturday week, ensures an anti-climactic sixth round of dead rubbers this weekend. How fitting.

Meaningless games have been a theme of both the Pro14 conference stages and the Rainbow Cup ever since the tournament organisers decided to compress the former to accommodate the latter. At a stroke, the Pro14 climax was utterly devalued, immediately ruling all but the four Irish provinces out of contention and also sacrificing two quarter-finals and two semi-finals, while shoehorning the final into an ill-fitting Saturday one week after the completion of the Six Nations.

Seeking to pull off the only sporting cross-hemisphere team tournament in the globe during the pandemic, the Rainbow Cup was always a highly risky concept. Sure enough, despite entreaties from the organisers that they had explored up to 16 locations around the world for the South African teams to fulfill quarantine obligations before entering Ireland, the UK and Italy, none were sanctioned.

One accepts that colossal efforts were made, but might not the penny have dropped after the first half dozen or so locations were not permitted? And might not better contingency plans been put in place rather than dividing the tournament in half and denying teams in the northern half a sixth game in the race for just one spot?

One also accepts that the Rainbow Cup ensured a badly needed financial injection of €6 million from South Africa TV for the dozen teams in the Celtic countries and Italy, but this came at considerable cost to the integrity of the Pro14, with the Rainbow Cup an inadequate end-of-season adjunct, now even more so.

The presence of Benetton in a final in Treviso might help to drum up some more interest in the competition within Italy

Thereafter, little or nothing about this hotch-potch of a tournament was ultimately going to lead to a final based on merit, given the dozen teams played a random five matches laden with derbies. The participating teams, supporters/viewers, sponsors and broadcasters have been short-changed.

Meanwhile, the Champions Cup having been adroitly completed, both the Top 14 and the Premiership are set to reach true and traditional crescendos over the next three weeks as fans return in France and England. They must cast a glance this way and laugh as, by comparison, the Pro14 has long since been cast to history, as will be so for the risible joke that is the Rainbow Cup.

Good luck to Benetton, who were desperately unlucky to finish bottom of Conference B in the Pro14, and cancellations of matches are a minor detail in the greater global scheme of things. But to reach the final they have beaten Glasgow and Connacht at home either side of a double over Zebre.

Of course, Benetton might well have beaten the Ospreys on Saturday in Bridgend, but the net effect is to make Munster’s trek to Zebre on Friday utterly meaningless instead of holding out the carrot of reaching the final. And so they are consigned to a 10th season in succession without silverware. They’ve had some week.

The Sharks host the Bulls this coming Saturday in what amounts to a decider in the South African half of the competition, and it’s probably no harm that whichever of them reaches the scheduled final on Saturday week are expected to land in Italy without their Springboks’ contingent.

Flawed route that it took, there are at least some positives to Benetton reaching the final on home soil. Less air travel is better for the planet and the presence of Benetton in a final in Treviso might help to drum up some more interest in the competition within Italy.

Alas, flagging interest elsewhere has now virtually evaporated.

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