IRFU must now think beyond Pro12

The ineptitude of the Edinburgh challenge in front of their home support on Saturday evening highlights one of the biggest challenges facing the Irish provinces in the future.

It would be very easy to hide behind the fact that Leinster, Munster and Ulster will all contest RaboDirect Pro12 semi-finals as a benchmark for the comparative strength of our respective teams. But in the longer term, our domestic league is providing nothing more than a smokescreen for more serious issues down the road.

The fact that Munster could afford to make 11 changes from the side that faced Toulon six days earlier and beat Edinburgh by 43 points on the road, shows just how abject the Pro12 has become.

For further confirmation, look no further than Leinster’s 62-7 nine-try annihilation of a Treviso side fielding eight players who featured for Italy in the Six Nations. That just shouldn’t happen. The Edinburgh team beaten by Munster had seven players with South African surnames but without a McDonald, a Campbell, a McKenzie, a McGregor or a Stewart anywhere in sight. What is happening to Scottish rugby? Thank God for Glasgow Warriors.

Leinster have secured a home semi-final for the sixth successive year and by finishing top of the pile in the regular season, will once again host the final at the RDS, should they overcome Ulster for the 11th time in 13 competitive outings in theirpotential semi-final meeting on the weekend after next. In a 12-team league, it seems crazy that only five sides had any realistic chance of making the top four with weeks to go, with three of those (Leinster,Glasgow and Munster) virtually guaranteed their place in the play-offs since January.

The fall-off in any challenge from the beleaguered Welsh districts was copper-fastened when one of the league’s serial achievers, the Ospreys, were beaten by perennial basement operators Zebre on Thursday night.

That defeat took a lot of the drama out of the last two rounds of regular action, with Ulster only requiring a single point to make the top four. They delivered that in another fractious outing against Leinster on Friday night. The mass exodus of stellar names from the Welsh domestic game continues unabated, with the Ospreys set to lose another three British and Irish Lions in key forwards Ryan Jones, Ian Evans and Richard Hibbard to France and England at the end of the season.

How many more defections can they take? Cardiff will be without Leigh Halfpenny and Robin Copeland next season while Lions captain Sam Warburton has signed a central contract with the WRU but nobody knows with certainty which Welsh district he will be attached to.

Having lost George North to Northampton after the Lions tour, Scarlets must plough on next season without his Lions colleague Jonathan Davies, who is bound for Clermont Auvergne.

The Welsh regions always offered the stiffest challenge to the Irish in the league over its 12 seasons. That dominance could be broken for the first time with Glasgow Warriors serious contenders to become the first Scottish winners, especially as they appear certain to host one of the two semi-finals, most probably against Munster. An outright Scottish victory would prove no bad thing for the competition.

The bottom line is that domestic leagues in England and France are not only serving the cause of their clubs better but also offer a more desirable prize at the end of the season, not to mention far more in terms of financial reward to each and every club. The domestic television deals now attaching to the Aviva Premiership and Top 14 have not only assured greater financial stability but also a degree of autonomy that strengthened the hands of the French and English at the European negotiating table.

It also helps when a tournament has a history and tradition as deep-rooted as the French championship. It’s iconic trophy, the Bouclier de Brennus, dates back to 1892, when Racing Club de France were the inaugural winners.

In its comparatively fledgling history, the RaboDirect Pro12 set out as the Celtic League before becoming the Magners League and is set for yet another name change from next season on the assumption that it can attract a title sponsor. Unfortunately the crowds attending the games are declining, with little or no support in evidence at any of the Welsh venues.

That is a big worry. At least the fact it serves as qualification for the newly-constructed European Rugby Champions Cup should inject new life into the tournament but having being a regular attendee at many of the games since the outset of the Celtic League back in 2001, the fall off in attendances at all venues, including Thomond Park, is a big concern.

The one lesson the IRFU need to take after the many twists and turns that characterised the formation of the new European club template, is that it is time to look after ourselves and our best interests. Never again should we be left occupying the high moral ground, protecting the interests of Scottish, Italian and Welsh rugby while their warring factions are negotiating behind out backs, looking after themselves.

My fellow RTÉ panellist Conor O’Shea was taken a bit by surprise on Friday night when I suggested that the Irish provinces might be better served looking to form an alliance with the Aviva Premiership at some stage in the future. At worst, we should be contemplating a British and Irish league. If we can unite under the Lions banner, then why not an expanded domestic league?

The Irish provinces would offer a far more competitive presence in that league than the Welsh regions whom Premiership Rugby Limited were very open to inviting on board at one stage during the European standoff.

Only issue here is that England’s PRL would be less inclined to work with the IRFU than the Welsh Regional Rugby alliance who were driving Welsh interests in deference to the WRU.

Ireland has plenty to offer in terms of highly competitive teams, a strong rugby history and tradition attaching to all our provinces and a vibrant support base. With so many Irish people now based in England, our teams would be very well supported at away fixtures, thus swelling the attendances at those games.

The likelihood is that a broadcast deal covering such a strong domestic league would be worth far more to Irish rugby than the current Rabo-Direct package and the quality of opposition would be consistently higher.

The chances of this happening any time soon are probably slim to none but with the increasing likelihood that South Africa will look to align their provincial rugby with Europe at some stage over the next decade, we in Irish rugby must be prepared to think outside the box and not be left on the outside looking in.

That could easily have happened had the IRFU not acquiesced in accepting everything the French and English demanded in the makeup of the new European club model. The lessons of the last 12 months need to be taken on board for another day.

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