PRO12 in rude health despite setbacks this year
May 31, 2014
Gabriel Ascarate in action for Glasgow against Cardiff Blues in an all-PRO12 Heineken Cup clash © PA
This Saturday Glasgow Warriors and Leinster go head-to-head for the RaboDirect PRO12 title. It has been an eventful season in the Celtic league and, despite numerous set-backs - the PRO12 was at the centre of the Euro row, had its number of teams in the new Champions Cup reduced, and saw sponsor RaboDirect announce it will leave the tournament after three years of support - the future of the tournament looks bright.
"The PRO12 is in a good place," PRO12 chief executive John Feehan told ESPN. "We have Italian clubs confirmed as equal partners, growing attendance figures and some long term contracts with broadcasters."
Attendances have grown steadily, rising from 1.02 million in 2010/11 to 1.1 million in 2012/13, a record organisers expect to break again after this year's final. This season's figures have already passed 1.113 million and, with the final act to be played at the iconic RDS Arena in Dublin, there's a great chance the 1.2 million landmark will be broken - a new all-time record.
Events such as the Wales Derby Day - where more than 30,000 showed up at the Millennium Stadium - and the 'Classico' all-Irish challenge between Leinster and Munster - which drew 51,700 to the Aviva Stadium - have helped the league push the bar over its previous record. It was rugby-mad Leinster that lead the way, with the province drawing in well over 210,000 punters for the regular season at just shy of 20,000 per match.
Leinster's play-off confirmed the trend with 18,000 rushing in to celebrate the semi-final triumph against rivals Ulster. 19,500 are expected at the RDS for tomorrow's showdown.
Television coverage now includes TG4 and RTÉ in Ireland, and the BBC in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where it is also shared with S4C. New partners Mediaset have brought the game to Italy. "We can expect solid growth," said Feehan, "We have a solid structure in place to grow the game."
Exactly 12 months ago Feehan, who played for Leinster and Ireland Universities, struck a deal with Sky that will bring the tournament to an even bigger TV audience. The agreement marks a landmark for the PRO12 as it has been able to deliver the first ever network coverage deal in the UK and Ireland. Under the deal that will kick start at the beginning of the 2014-2015 season, Sky will broadcast 33 games live and that, along with coverage from local broadcasters, will give the PRO12 an impressive reach.
The seeds of increased TV exposure have already been sewn as this season's final will be broadcast live by the likes of Setanta Sport in Australia and Asia, Sky Sports in New Zealand, Fox Sports Americas and OSN North Africa and the Middle East.
If the future sounds good, it is built on solid foundations. Four of the last seven Heineken Cups have gone to PRO12 teams, while five Six Nations titles in the last seven championships have been taken by PRO12 nations. Success on that scale speaks volumes for the success of the format.
Players also seem to be benefiting. 24 of the 37 players selected for the 2013 Lions tour played their club rugby in the PRO12. "We have diversity across the four countries and more international players than any other league," said Feehan. "The fact that we do not have relegation generates more positive rugby."
But one thing threatening the health of the PRO12 has been an exodus of players to foreign shores. In less than two years, stars such as Jonathan Sexton, Jamie Roberts, Dan Lydiate and Richie Gray all headed to France, with George North joining Northampton in England. In June Leigh Halfpenny, the man who has played such a key role for both the Lions and Wales, will move to Toulon, leading a group of elite players - including Greig Laidlaw and Luke McLean - out of the PRO12.
This is a trend that does not worry Feehan: "Any league or club have a constant rotation of players. We also have a great track record of developing new talents. We have every confidence that our competition will be as strong as ever".
While stars may move abroad, teams in the PRO12 continue to develop their own talent. Italian and Scottish clubs are focusing on home-grown players, with Edinburgh effectively starting afresh under Alan Solomons as he looks within the team's academy along with recruits from abroad to carry the team forward next season.
Feehan admires Treviso and Zebre's approach to the PRO12 as they attempt to keep a strong Italian core within their team: "It is extremely important for Italy to have professional players in the PRO12. It gives them the opportunity to play against a calibre of opposition they will face when playing for their national squad."
One elephant in the room is the format of the new European Rugby Champions Cup, which sees fewer PRO12 teams competing and qualification based on league standing rather than national privileges. But this does not alarm Feehan: "We feel that the meritocracy element of the new competition will help the competitiveness".
As Glasgow prepare for their first PRO12 final this weekend, they are the shining example of what can happen if team's embrace the opportunities and deal with the limitations of the tournament. As sides such as Zebre and Connacht improve year-on-year, broadcasters and stakeholders alike will hope the PRO12 continues in a similar manner.
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