The rugby season in the home nations is all over. Just the Top14 needs to be decided on this side of the equator before World Cup training camp begins. This time last year we had only just learned of the security of a European competition for a minimum of another 8 years. The biggest buzzword surrounding the new competition’s inception was “meritocracy.” Following the initial season, are we beginning to see the early results of this new tournament and its more meritocratic qualification system? We look at some improvements or differences in the league and see whether or not we can attribute this to the Champions Cup.
New winners – Glasgow Warriors
What a season it has been for Glasgow. In an era where teams often try to outmuscle rather than out perform their opponents, Glasgow have been a breath of fresh air. Their free flowing, all action, offload-at-will style gets people interested and makes rugby exciting to watch. It has been great to have a new winner of the competition, but it would be a massive stretch to attribute this result to a new “tougher” Europe. This Glasgow side have been knocking on the door for 3 seasons now, and were the most consistent side in the competition both this and last season. Leinster’s phenomenal 6 Nations period last year earned them home advantage in the playoffs leading to their victory. Glasgow were to make no mistake this time out as the coolly dismantled Munster in the final playing their typical eye-catching brand of rugby. Gregor Townsend is building something special, and hopefully they will be able to make it work in Europe next season.
More exciting end of season
One of the big arguments against scrapping the promotion and relegation element of the Aviva Premiership has been that it would diminish the spectacle of rugby at the business end of the season for those who were not in contention for European places. The Pro12 has for years lived with an even more ingrained problem that only two (or one if the Heineken Cup winner was from the Pro12) teams missed out on qualification. With places trimmed back to 7 this season, the competition was kept interesting right until the bitter end. With about 8 rounds to go, it was clear that 4 mini leagues had developed. First a playoff race between the eventual top 5. Then a race for the last automatic qualification spot between Edinburgh, Connacht and the Scarlets. Behind them the race for the playoff spot which included those three teams as well as the Blues and the Dragons and finally a league amongst the Italians as to who would take the guaranteed spot for an Italian club. Many of these places were not decided until the final day of the season and it made more games more important to more fans which has to be a big plus for the league. It meant that Connacht’s win over Leinster early in the season was not restrained to being a moral victory giving the men from the west of Ireland bragging rights for a couple of weeks; that was a huge 4 points in finishing 7th and giving themselves a chance at top tier rugby. We could see rivalries develop between sides like Connacht and Scarlets, who might not have the squad depth to challenge for league honours yet, but certainly have enough talent to be in the battle for 6th and 7th for the foreseeable future.
This is a section which is hard to review based on one season, as it will take a number of years for all the sponsors to come on board and for the money to flow into the coffers of the clubs. Early signs are mixed however. The new deal has meant more money for the Welsh regions, which, it seems, has been the difference between life and death. The player drain has hardly stunted, with the likes of Niko Matawalu and Rhys Priestland, Tim Visser, Sean Maitland and Michele Campagnaro the among the frontline, big name stars who are set to leave the league to play in England. What is worrying is players like JJ Hanrahan leaving to go to Northampton, Brendan Macken taking a loan deal mid-season in Gloucester before ending up in Wasps next year. Sean Dougal and Paddy Butler are other young talents who are moving on to pastures new.
On the flip side, there has been some movement within the league and some imports brought in like Francis Saili to Munster and Taqele Naiyaravoro going to Glasgow and Jonathan Sexton returning to Leinster. Competing with the French and English leagues on a monetary basis is currently a pipedream. However, with the first two points of this article showing there is now a more watchable, competitive brand of rugby being played on these shores, perhaps investment is yet to come which could help secure the futures of clubs in the Pro12 still further.
It has its problems for fans elsewhere, but the reformatted Champions Cup has made the on-field Pro12 product better. A greater number of games matter to more teams, and that will carry over to it being more important to a growing number of fans. The Pro12 did not start being good because of the Champions Cup, but the new tournament, and its qualification rules, has helped improve the league. Of that there should be no doubt.