Thursday, September 11, 2014

Don't let Celtic League history be forgotten

Leinster celebrate victory in the 1st ever Celtic League final in 2001
"History is written by the victors" - Winston Churchill
Clearly the right honourable gentleman had a point, but even he couldn't possibly have known that half a century down the line there would be bloggers pounding away at keyboards doing their level best to keep things in check.

As we embark on what is the 14th season of Celtic/Magners League/Rabo/Guinness Pro12 rugby, I'd like to take this opportunity to welcome all of the new viewers to the competition which Sky Sports has brought with it.

There's no denying that they know what they're doing when it comes to packaging a sport for public consumption.  And there was one thing about their coverage of Glasgow v Leinster I did not expect...they allowed a second colour commentator in the box to go up against Stu Barnes, with Shane Horgan doing a superb job filling in the numerous blanks in the former Bath & England out-half's knowledge on the subject of the competition.

But while I applaud this and some other innovations offered by the British broadcasters, there is one narrative I would like to kick not just into touch but over the grandstand and out of sight.

Let's be clear on this folks...this league we know as the Guinness Pro12 didn't just come into existence last weekend.  

Throughout the English (and sadly too, the Welsh) media there has been this prevailing narrative that everything positive and entertaining that happened in the six Pro12 matches last weekend only did so because of the new European qualifying rules.

All I can say to that is....HOLD your horses, lads.  Come on, Irish fans, are we really going to let them get away with that?

Let's remember exactly how and why this competition came about.  The English and French had national competitions already in place for their clubs in the Heineken Cup.  Ireland, Scotland & Wales, however, didn't have enough top flight clubs to make their own leagues anywhere near as competitive (though of course many in Wales will disagree).

So the Celtic League competition was devised to offer unions some top level rugby to help them prepare for what was then a new pan-European competition and of course the Six Nations in the professional era.

It had humble beginnings on the format front, starting out with two pools of 8 and 7 teams respectively leading to quarterfinals and finishing before Christmas in 2001.  After a couple of years, it was decided that only a season-long round robin tournament could come close to matching the Premiership and Top 14.  

Of course not everything was plain sailing.  Here in Ireland we had the luxury of being readily familiar with the identities of our four proud provinces...our Celtic cousins, however, had to create pro clubs going down the "region" or "franchise" route and we all know how that turned out.  So the numbers in the league steadily went down from 12 to 11 and eventually just the 10 clubs.

Contrary to popular opinion, however, we weren't afraid to change things up in the league even back then.  Originally Ireland's qualifiers were chosen by the IRFU and thus were always Leinster, Munster and Ulster no matter what Connacht managed.  We then brought in the need to finish in the top 3 Irish sides, which some may think is irrelevant considering Connacht's lack of resources compared to the other 3 but one season it did take defeat to Ulster in the final rounds to keep them from causing an upset.

Then for the 2009/10 season there was the re-introduction of the playoffs to determine the league champions, and the following year, the Italians were added to the mix.

All of this happened totally unbeknownst to fans in England and France.  But one thing they were noticing was that from 2006 onwards, Irish provinces were also finding success at the European level, perhaps a little more than they may have liked.

The rest is, well, history.  The McCafferty Wars have come and gone, and what we have now is what we have.

But what I ask of Irish (and I suppose given my allegiance more specifically Leinster though not exclusively) fans is to look back over those thirteen seasons and remember the good times.  For there were many.
  • I remember that incredible move which graced the first Celtic League final at the old Lansdowne Road as Dennis Hickie started from his own 22 and along with Keith Gleeson, Shane Horgan and finally Gordon D'Arcy, carved up the Munster defence, sending Leinster on the way to our first title.
  • I remember that Shane Jennings' try at the (pre-Grandstand roof) RDS which earned the bonus point we needed against the Newport Gwent Dragons to clinch title number 2 in 2008, a triumph which helped Michael Cheika give us the belief we needed to win our first Heineken Cup the following season.
  • I remember a cracking trip to Thomond Park for the 2011 final.  The result of course wasn't ideal, but winning HCup number 2 the week before helped with the pain and I also met up with a load of fans I had gotten to know through social media (see photo above).
  • I remember the final at the RDS in 2012 - again, result not ideal but again, made up for by European victory and I was just yards away from Dan Biggar as he effortlessly stroked over a sensational last-second conversion for the Ospreys to pinch a 1-point victory.
  • I remember the 2013 final where we finally won back the title as well as saying goodbye to Joe, Isa & (temporarily) Johnny.
  • And of course I remember the 2014 decider where I witnessed the legendary Brian O'Driscoll's final act on the pitch as a professional rugby player, namely charging to block a clearance kick even though he knew he was injured and would have to go off.  The kick may have gotten away but the effort spoke volumes for his career.
Sure, I only have those memories because I am a Leinster fan and we have, in many ways, set the standards in the league in recent years.  But is that my fault?  Or is it Leinster's?  Should the Ospreys and their fans not be proud of their own 4 titles?  Or Munster of their 3?  Or the Ulster and Scarlets of their 1 each?

The league is imperfect, but then again, so is rugby, and that is one of the many reasons we love it.  I have harped on before about ways the league could make even more changes to help spread the love across the nations...one of these was to divide the table into NFL-style conferences.

And let us be abundantly clear about this; both the Premiership and Top 14 have troubles of their own.

For example...a running "joke" about the Celtic League has been its two-tiered nature, yet nobody seems to be questioning the presence of two "fifty-burgers" in the results from the first round of this season's Aviva.

Plus, it's not as though both it and the Top14 haven't gone through numerous format changes of their own over the years.  I remember when three not four teams made the Premiership playoffs, and four not six in France.  Then we have the numerous re-inventions of the salary cap system - I could go on.

So in future, when McCafferty and his fellow "victors" from English clubs and media try to re-write Celtic League history, be sure and take to your keyboards and set them straight.  Because there has been certainly much for us to enjoy.

Bring on the Scarlets to the RDS this Saturday!  JLP

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