I have been waiting for the last week or so, for an announcement about the two Super rugby teams that are rumoured to be joining the Pro-12 for the new season. As of today, there has been no confirmation of this happening. Considering that the fixtures are not out yet, and they were released on last Wednesday last year, I would assume that the rumours may be true.
The report from BBC Wales (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/rugby-union/40583145) all but confirming this. It opens up a variety of questions. According to reports, they will go for a conference system (2 groups of 7) with all teams in each conference playing each other twice, and then they woud play each team in the other conference once. This would give a total of 19 matches. When you take into account, Play-offs this would be a 21 week season (down from 24 weeks). The positive with this is it would benefit the national sides, especially with the burnout and injury concerns that have been expressed. Then taking into account International fixtures, European Campions Cup / Challenge Cup group matches, this would give a club season of 35 weeks. This would allow for seven weeks for summer touring and European KO weeks, and give the players a close season of ten weeks. British Lions tours and Rugby World Cups will elongate the seasons.
If they go through the conference system, they should split the teams by Nationality equally. This would give two Irish, two Welsh, and one each from Italy, Scotland and South Africa. It would also ensure that each country has at least one derby. With a 19 game league season, it may be that an extra game could be played to make it 20, with a second derby between countries with two representatives, and the extra match of Ireland and Wales being against one of the two compatriots in the other conference. I just hope that they don’t make it 21 games so that all the Welsh and Irish teams play each other home and away and the other nations have 3 games as local fixtures. This would just make a mockery of the competition. I feel that it must be either 19 or 20. By making it 20 games, it would also prevent any imbalance in the home and away fixtures. A drawback however may be that the weaker teams, have an extra challenging match compared to others in the same area of the league. But, with the Champions cup places being decided on league position and nationality, it may become a source of concern. This may be controversial and convoluted, but they should do the league and first place nationality based on 20 games, but the other positions for Champions Cup rugby based on 19. This would give a more equal overview as they have played all the teams the same amount of times.
An issue that I have about the SA teams teams joining, is that the teams are the ‘also rans’ of the Super Rugby. Neither side has set the heather on fire during their tenure. The Pro-12 must seek guarantees that investment will be made by the two franchises and South Africa Rugby, so that the teams are competitive and not development teams. If they do not get these, it would just be adding two more Italian style teams. This would not allow the league to grow and make it more marketable to a wider audience. These guarantees may not be forthcoming as another issue is the nature of the Southern Hemisphere competition. The Rugby Championship runs from August to September, which would require internationalists to be released, and the Currie Cup, which includes much rivalry, is major sporting competition in South Africa. A way round this may be a global rugby calendar, which is frequently talked about, but never gets past the discussion point. That issue, however, is for another day.
What has been missing from the close season has been the annual ‘will they / won’t they’ conundrum of their participation. I don’t think they haven’t really brought anything to the competition since they joined. I know you could say the same about Edinburgh in recent years, but they have experienced some success since the inception of the league. When you look at the progress that Connacht have made, you do have to question the usefulness of the Italian clubs in creating meaningful competition (again I am aware Edinburgh lost at home to Zebre last season). If they do decide to leave the league, the inclusion of the two South African teams, without guarantees would be replacing like for like.
The involvement of SA teams, may allow the concept of North American sides joining some momentum. It has been done in Rugby League, with the Toronto Wolfpack, joining the 3rd tier and are currently unbeaten after 14 league matches. So if the Pro-12! want to develop further the inclusion of African and American teams would seem feasible. The distance issue may be a concern, as unlike in Super Rugby, they can build in rest weeks for team. These tend to be when they have come off an away tour to Australia/New Zealand or SA/Argentina.
As the Pro-12 has been falling behind the French and English Leagues in terms of money and prestige, this decision I feel will be key in the future of the league. If they can negotiate a good deal for coverage from Sky Sports, now that they have lost the rights to European Champions Cup rugby, they may be able to develop better brand awareness. Losing this coverage is not a major surprise, as this was the issue that almost brought the competition to an end. Similar to the RFU selling their rights to Sky for the 6 Nations (though it wasn’t theirs to sell), the Premier Rugby Limited agreed a deal to sell their European matches to BT Sport. If the Pro-12 can get the might of Sky behind them (the renewal of TV contract fits in with Sky losing the European matches), they may have a chance to build a major brand. They must be careful however as the Welsh may want to jump ship as soon as the English come calling.
So the future of Pro-12 rugby will be decided soon, and hopefully it will develop its brand. With a new TV deal up for renewal at the end of the season, they will hope to get the revenue similar to France (£75m) England (£68m) rather than £11.5m they currently receive. If they can do this and Sky promote it like they have done with football and rugby league, the future could be very bright for Pro-12 Rugby.