ON the surface, everything seems perfect. Yet it’s not.
Three of the four Irish provinces may have reached the Pro12 play-offs, yet what is the prize they are competing for? A competition that is dwarfed by the prize money on offer in France and England; the Pro12 is very much the ugly duckling of European rugby.
And – given the respective salaries on offer from Europe’s three professional leagues – the fear is that this league will become a feeder one to the Top 14 and Aviva Premiership and that more players like Ian Madigan will jump ship in years to come.
If that seems excitable then bear in mind how the Pro12 teams fared in this year’s Champions Cup. None made it to the quarter finals and only two Pro12 teams, Ospreys and Ulster, came close. The rest – bar Munster – lost more games than they won and the only reason Munster ended with a record of three wins and three defeats was because Treviso, who barely merit an entry into the competition, were in their pool.
So let’s place Irish rugby’s achievement into context. Yes, Leinster deserve some credit for ending the regular season in first position, while Connacht simply have to be applauded for the most successful campaign in their history. As for Ulster, well what is to be proud about for coming fourth in a league comprised of underfunded Welsh teams, underwhelming Italian ones and two, admittedly decent, Scottish sides?
At this juncture, it is worth recalling an interview that Shane Logan, Ulster’s chief executive did with the Belfast Telegraph, six years ago. “Look at the competition,” he noted. “There are 38 senior professional sides in Europe, 14 in France, 12 in England and 12 in our league. In the southern hemisphere there are 15 top sides from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand and, yes, it is absolutely possible for us to be the leading one of all those. We have been up there before, winning the European Cup and winning our league, and I believe we can do it again… I think we are neck and neck with Munster, if not slightly ahead. Leinster are excellent but we fully intend to rein them in by improving more quickly than them.”
That was 2010. Since then, Leinster have won two Heineken Cups, an Amlin Cup and two Pro12s. Ulster have not won anything and worse again, lost to Leinster in the 2012 Heineken Cup final, the 2013 Pro12 final, the 2014 Pro12 semis.
The ready-made excuse is that rugby, like soccer, is now a money game. The figures show that the French Top 14 share €74 million per year in a TV deal. The Aviva Premiership clubs divvy up €53 million per annum whereas the Pro12 clubs go cap-in-hand to the TV companies and come back with €14 million per-year.
Worse again, the French system allows their clubs to buy 16 foreign players in a 36-man squad and pays a €300,000 bonus to any club that averages 14 home players in that matchday squad. In this respect, the Irish provinces – who are largely funded by the IRFU – haven’t a chance of competing.
Yet one in particular has shown how hard work can trump bigger spends. Connacht – for so long the paupers of the Irish game – have managed to punch above their weight this season and after their tense, and tight, win over Glasgow last weekend, they have secured a home semi-final for the play-offs. “And I think it’s huge,” Pat Lam, their coach, said.
“You can see that we only lost one [home] game and that was in the 78th minute against Ulster and it still obviously bugs me, that one. The biggest thing is that we have also prided ourselves that we can win away; but when we get home there’s something magical about this place.”
So while they are looking forward to the rest of their season, Munster are forced to think about next year and wonder how Anthony Foley, their head coach, will cope with his demotion and the appointment of Rassie Erasmus as the province’s new director of rugby.
“I haven’t spoken to Rassie yet. So until that happens there’s no point [speculating],” Foley said. “I just want to coach and that’s hopefully what will happen. Until I’ve sat down and pressed the flesh with him, you can’t really do anything.”
While the strangeness of this situation – a head coach wondering what role he will have next year – suggests that Foley will be on the way out, CJ Stander, the Munster captain, has expressed the wish that he would like him to stay.
“Anthony brings out the best in you. He is a direct guy, he knows how to work with his players. He tells you what he needs from you, what he expects from you,” Stander said.
Whether that is enough to make Foley want to hang around, remains to be seen. As for now, their year is over. “The club doesn’t want to be in that situation where you’re scrambling to get into Europe,” Foley said. “You want to be dominating and making sure you’re in the knockouts and these players need to understand the reasons why we’re not there.”
Those reasons are simple: they were not good enough. In a bad league, they were mid-table. That’s frightening.