Is the Italian clubs' race to the bottom for European qualification helping the game there?
Friday April 24
Edinburgh v Zebre
Saturday, April 25
Munster v Treviso
Friday, May 8
Leinster v Treviso
Saturday, May 9
Zebre v Connacht
Saturday, May 16
Cardiff Blues v Zebre
Treviso v Scarlets
The race for Champions Cup qualification is really hotting up in the Pro12!!!
What’s that you say? Something about Connacht, Scarlets and Edinburgh? Oh, come on...surely you know I mean the battle to the death between Treviso and Zebre for the guaranteed Italian slot?
As you can see above, just three points separate them on the Pro12 table with three rounds to go, and while Treviso have two trips to Ireland, Zebre with their not-as-horrible points difference could set their goals high and earn losing bonus points from their remaining matches to pinch the spot from their countrymen...........
Sorry, I can’t keep up the fake enthusiasm any more.
And I’m also sorry for the sarcasm...believe it or not, my goal is not to demean Italian rugby. My goal is to point out that I don’t need to demean Italian rugby because the qualification system actually does that all on its own.
The purpose of ring-fencing a spot in the Champions Cup for Italy is meant to be to improve the standard of the game there. And it’s true, their clubs have been known to get results over the years, this season included.
In the Pro12, Zebre defeated Ulster, NG Dragons & Edinburgh and they did the double over Brive in the Challenge Cup while Treviso clawed their way back to a 24-24 all with Leinster and they even kicked off their existence in the new Champions Cup with a 23-20 win over the Ospreys.
But then we see how they fared in their remaining Euro pool matches, particularly Benetton.
OK maybe they were up against two eventual quarterfinalists in Racing and Northampton, but still Treviso’s average losing score in those 5 ties was 8 - 45. So my question is...can this be a good thing for promoting the game in Italy? Or would they be better off in the Challenge Cup with clubs of budgets closer to theirs where they might actually stand a chance of being competitive?
Naturally there's a wider debate over whether these two teams are good enough for the Pro12 at all given they are set to take up the bottom two positions for the second year running, but let's leave that chat for another day and focus on the Euro thing.
I’m actually not even saying we should rule out ringfencing altogether. It’s just that I feel an automatic spot in the RCC is a step too far. Maybe we can guarantee the FIR a minimum slice of the TV money even if their clubs don’t make the top table? Or more practically, maybe give them a spot in the playoffs, with home advantage guaranteed?
Imagine an end of season match at the Stadio di Monigo between Treviso and, say, Harlequins. It would effectively be a cup final and surely would be a boon for the game in the area from a marketing perspective. And should the Italians prevail, they can actually have a significant result to show they deserve their place - while should they lose, at least they made a few bob on the gate money and will probably spare themselves the hidings the following season.
But that’s just me harping on hypotheticals. The point is, while I want to see the game of rugby develop all over Europe, I’m not so sure even the shiny new status quo is doing enough to ensure it. JLP
PS - Don't worry, we haven't forgotten the match in Marseille and we'll be all over that from tomorrow, just consider this Italian question a "hump day" topic to bridge the gap between last Sunday and next!