A new season of Guinness PRO14 rugby begins on Friday with a sense of the unknown hanging over the competition. The Covid-19 pandemic means the competition will begin behind closed doors with the tournament set to introduce further South African sides. Steffan Thomas looks at the strengths of the PRO14 and why it should be so much better.
The Guinness PRO14 returns this weekend. A domestic competition packed with some of the best players in the world with some of the strongest provincial sides in the northern hemisphere.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? But what should be a competition full of top-class rugby has been reduced to a dog’s dinner thanks to some crazy scheduling.
Supporters should be enjoying a rugby feast with players such as Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, Peter O’Mahony, Bundee Aki, Iain Henderson, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny, Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Hamish Watson, Leone Nakarawa, Monty Ioane and Ruan Pienaar.
“It was the Celtic League, and ever since then it has struggled with its identity” | 🏉
— Off The Ball (@offtheball) September 30, 2020
But these high-profile players will hardly be seen in their club or provincial colours this season due to an extended season of international rugby. A competition which should excite supporters does the opposite with it being a league set up for the purpose of servicing international rugby with supporters an afterthought.
According to Cardiffrfcfans.com last season Ireland and British & Irish Lions outside-half Sexton only played 125 minutes of PRO14 rugby excluding the play-offs. He didn’t play much more in the 2018-19 season appearing for a mere 359 minutes.
Similarly, Tadhg Furlong played 63 minutes, Alun Wyn Jones 723 minutes, Ross Moriarty 660 minutes and Jacob Stockdale 344 minutes. And they wonder why the Pro14 is seen as the poor relation to the Gallagher Premiership and the Top 14. If ever a competition needed a globally aligned season it was the PRO14.
This season will be worse than most with a one-off Nations Cup which includes England, Ireland, France, Scotland, Wales and Georgia and Fiji to be played this autumn with the Six Nations remaining in its usual spot.
While even the most gifted psychic could not have foreseen a global pandemic and the devastation it would leave in its wake, the PRO14 has still not helped itself.
One of rugby’s worst kept secrets was finally revealed this week with crack South African Super Rugby franchises the Bulls, Stormers, Sharks and Lions being brought into the competition to create a PRO16 from the 2021-22 season onwards.
On the face of it this could seriously enhance the quality and profile of this much maligned league. Unlike the previous two South African participants these are powerhouses of the southern hemisphere game and would be contenders to win it every season.
But along with the absence of a globally aligned season what is lacking in this competition is a lack of tribalism and deep-rooted rivalry outside of the inter-provincial derbies.
Imagine yourself being a Cardiff Blues season ticket holder.
An hour up the road you have Bristol, 90 minutes up the road you have Bath, with Gloucester, Exeter Chiefs and Worcester Warriors a similar distance away. To play these clubs regularly would rekindle old rivalries and get supporters excited again.
Is there really going to be any sort of tribalism at the prospect of facing sides who are a 12-hour flight away? The lack of away support is a massive issue which this move won’t fix, to say nothing of the travel uncertainties in the current global pandemic.
The lack of a salary cap also hinders the competitiveness of the league – a point which will be hammered home this season more than ever.
Leinster have dominated the PRO14 for the past three seasons and are the side everyone else aspires to be like.
But is having one side completely dominate the competition – they were unbeaten last season – good for the league?
This is no criticism of Leinster but some would argue it does nothing for generating extra excitement.
The Gallagher Premiership and the Top 14 have salary caps in place and there are many reasons the PRO14 should follow suit. Leinster’s playing budget is thought to be in the region of 10.8 million euros.
The South African Rugby Union has voted to pull its four major franchises from Super Rugby and explore expanding their presence in the European PRO14 competition in a huge shift for the game in the country. In a widely expected move, a Special General Meeting of the South African pic.twitter.com/eJgSjRX3Sk
— Voice of the Cape (@VOCfm) September 30, 2020
The Irish enjoy taking the moral high ground over big spending French and English clubs but in actual fact Leinster’s playing budget is higher than Saracens, who have been relegated from English rugby’s top flight for breaking the agreed salary cap, and French outfit Toulon who spent 8.55 million euros on their squad.
Of course, it has to be acknowledged that the vast majority of Leinster’s squad are homegrown players but their spend is significantly higher than their PRO14 rivals with Munster’s estimated spend in the region of 8.5 million euros, Ulster’s 7m euros and Connacht’s 6m euros.
In contrast, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic which has forced players to take significant pay cuts, the Scarlets budget was £7.7m, the Ospreys £6.4m, Cardiff Blues £5.9m and the Dragons £4.8m.
There is a huge gulf in playing budgets throughout the league and in such uncertain financial times wouldn’t implementing a fair salary cap be the right thing to do?
Fans should enjoy the Guinness PRO14 when it kicks-off on Friday night for there will be some enjoyable rugby and any sport is precious in these times.
But they should also reflect on how much better this competition could and should be.