It’s been through many guises – the Welsh-Scottish League, the Celtic League, the Pro12 and now the Pro14 – but the coming season is surely the most testing yet for the tournament which houses the four Welsh regions. For Alex Bywater, it’s a league that needs help and yet it doesn’t help itself.
The 2020/21 Guinness Pro14 season will kick-off on Friday night when Cardiff Blues travel to Zebre.
With a new campaign starting just 20 days after the previous one ended these are uncharted waters for the division, but the uncomfortable truth is it is struggling to find its place in today’s rugby world.
Covid-19 has had a disastrous impact on the sport. Both clubs and national unions are just about keeping the wolf from the door – for now, at least – but it seems only a matter of time before the beast breaks in somewhere.
The Pro14 teams are clearly not exempt from this perilous situation and while Covid has caused the competition all manner of understandable problems, there are still far more questions out there than answers.
This is a competition with a worrying and uncertain future ahead of it. It is not helping itself.
With teams from Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Italy and South Africa taking part in the league, clearly the required planning needed to organise fixtures is complicated even without the presence of a global pandemic.
Anyone with half a brain can surely understand that and give the officials some leeway, but the decision last week to announce the first eight rounds of fixtures just over a week before the action is set to begin has left the participating sides chasing their feet.
In Wales, the four regions have been hugely frustrated at the situation.
What’s more, the opening 11 rounds of the Pro14 will take place without South African sides Cheetahs and Southern Kings due to Covid restricting travel to and from the Rainbow Nation.
Pro14 officials hope to have southern hemisphere representation in the second half of the campaign, but that decision is at best slightly unpalatable and at worst completely half-witted.
The South African side’s games will be completely meaningless when they arrive.
What the Pro14 needs now is to become more relevant, not produce yet more pointless action.
Right now, it is a sideshow to the Gallagher Premiership and French Top14.
Southern Kings won’t return, anyway, after they entered liquidation and it seems likely both they and the Cheetahs will step aside for four new South African teams – Stormers, Bulls, Sharks and Lions – to come in and make a Pro16.
The Pro14 confirmed they are committed to South African expansion last week, but how can you attract fans when there is uncertainty about who is even taking part?
Sometimes less is more.
Another reason why the Pro14 has struggled to make an impact in previous years is set to get worse rather than better this season.
It is widely accepted by those involved there must be fewer domestic games on the same weekends as international rugby.
🎊 The #GuinnessPRO14 is BACK this Friday! 🎊
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) September 28, 2020
The likes of Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones and Leinster fly-half Johnny Sexton play far, far more for their countries than they do for their employers.
It’s a shame there is no official media launch of the tournament this week as Ireland’s talisman Sexton might have been asked: “Johnny, how excited are you about the new tournament? Excited enough, maybe, to consider actually starting in the final?”
Rugby’s perilous financial position means there must be Test matches this autumn to ensure the game’s survival, but between the Pro14 starting and December 5, there are six weekends of international rugby slated.
What will be the Pro14 be at those times? A sideshow, yet again.
The division has introduced Monday night rugby to try and combat the clash, but that may not be too popular with fans.
The Pro14’s broadcast deal with Premier Sports is also into its last season.
Amongst all this the four Welsh regions – the Dragons, Cardiff Blues, Ospreys and Scarlets – somehow have to look forward. They are unlikely to end up challenging the hegemony of Leinster.
Equating the financial firepower of Wales’ four sides to that of Leinster – who have won the last three titles – is like comparing a water pistol to an armoured tank.
The gulf is set to be made worse in the years ahead as the £20m loan the Welsh Rugby Union have received from NatWest to stay afloat in these uncertain times will have to be repaid.
The regions – who will receive roughly £5m of that loan, each – are responsible for giving back their share over time which will have a huge impact.
The outlook isn’t especially positive, but without the bank there is no doubt Welsh rugby would be going to the wall right now.
Glenn Delaney’s Scarlets are the one cause for cheer and as they have been for the last three years. The men from Llanelli look the best equipped of the Welsh sides to compete for the title.
There is a very strong squad in place at Parc y Scarlets, but head coach Delaney could lose up to 15 players to Wales duty alone next month.
In fairness when you look the Dutch football team from Euro 88 then tries like this are the only acceptable way to score https://t.co/zArW4adN8l
— Adam Redmond (@AdamRedmond) September 18, 2020
The Ospreys surely can’t get any worse than they did last year, but they, too, will lack for depth when Jones, captain Justin Tipuric, George North and others depart for the Welsh camp.
At Rodney Parade, the savvy Dean Ryan is making steps with his young Dragons and the Blues will have their moments, but both are unlikely to find consistency.
What Welsh rugby needs more than anything is a British & Irish League with its teams playing meaningful fixtures, week-in, week-out against rival outfits.
With the greatest of respect, who would Blues fans want to see their team play against – the likes of Zebre or the Kings or old foes Bath or Gloucester? I know which games I’d want to go to.
The problem is Welsh rugby needs the English sides desperately, but the feeling is not reciprocal. It means for the moment there is no option other than to muddle on through with the status quo.
For now, the Pro14, the Pro12, the Pro16, or whatever you want to call it, is here to stay.