Pro12 still facing testing future ahead of new season

Talk of a possible American expansion has lit the path towards a new Guinness Pro12 season that gets underway tonight but winning over hearts and minds within its current borders remains the main challenge for tournament organisers.

After grand finals in Belfast and Edinburgh, the next showpiece venue would, in a perfect world, have been Cardiff, but Welsh indifference to the league allied to a Principality Stadium boasting a 74,500 capacity meant that neither the numbers nor the logic added up.

So, the Aviva it is next May, then.

The fact is that we are now 15 years, 1,664 games, and almost 70,000 points into the competition’s meandering voyage, and the paucity of input from the four Welsh regions remains one of the heaviest anchors holding back a competition eager to sail into new waters.

No Welsh side made the play-offs last year, the last time a region graced the final was when Ospreys won the thing outright five seasons ago, and the only other Welsh side to claim the title was the Scarlets all the way back in 2004.

Change is at least being mooted.

Warren Gatland and the WRU’s chief executive Martyn Phillips met with the regions two weeks ago to formulate a more focused approach and there are suggestions that the Ospreys, Blues, Scarlets, and Dragons may see their nationally contracted players sooner than usual.

“We want to the regional game to be stronger,” says Dragons coach Kingsley Jones. “We want the whole brand to be stronger for Welsh rugby. The depth is an issue for us, we have to be honest about that. What Wales have done at national level is create a real strong team unity. It’s the opposite to France, in that the national team is a major priority.

“We need to transfer that into the regional level. We have to be better. We’ve been made aware of that by Martyn, and Warren and Rob (Howley), that we have to achieve more at regional level. Those players have to play at the highest level possible to be good for Wales. If we can get teams doing well here and in Europe we can only help each other.” And the league with it.

The other black spot, of course, has been Italy. All of it.

Six years the Italians have been knocking around the premises and they continue to stink the place out. The hope is that the appointment of Conor O’Shea as national coach will filter improvements down the pyramid to Zebre and Treviso, where he will be seen weekly on the ground.

They can always look to Connacht for inspiration. Or Glasgow.

The Scottish side’s emergence under Gregor Townsend doesn’t quite boast the fairytale factor of the underdog Irish province, but its only 2011 since the Warriors finished 11th — sandwiched in between Aironi and Treviso — and they were champions within four seasons.

“In terms of succession planning and how they have put funds into the pro teams, how the pro game has grown, it is the best it has been and the arrow is definitely pointing upwards,” says Townsend of the Scottish game. “We need to build on the good work that has gone in the last few years.”

The Irish wing of the building looks stronger than ever.

Connacht enter the campaign as reigning champions and with Pat Lam still at the helm, Munster should be much improved under Rassie Erasmus, Les Kiss faces into his first full season with Ulster, and Leo Cullen has a year under his belt with a Leinster squad stung by that final loss in May.

All four will be chasing one of the four play-off spots, or should be, come the newly formulated ‘Super Saturday’ final round of fixtures, when local derbies will bring the regular season to a close — not to mention one of the seven Champions Cup spots.

Problems persist in terms of the financial gap between the PRO12 sides and their French and English counterparts — something that is becoming increasingly apparent in the European competitions — but making it harder to qualify for the Champions Cup has been an unqualified success.

Edinburgh finished ninth last year and yet the 54 points they bagged last term was enough for Munster to sit sixth three years before and Leinster topped the table with the lowest points tally in the six years since the Italians were invited in.

Both are signs that the competitiveness is increasing.

“Every game counts, every point counts,” says Leinster captain Isa Nacewa. “Every game counts before Christmas, after Christmas. During Six Nations, the competition is so strong now, you have to be on point each week. You have to perform each week.”

Maybe so, but you would expect Leinster won’t need to hit fifth gear to start with a win against Treviso tonight.

America or no America, the league still has a long way to go.


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