Leinster and Ulster in one section, Munster and Connacht in the other, all vying with teams from other nations to get into the knockout stages. A whole new concept for provincial rugby eh? Actually that was exactly how the first ever Celtic League competition went down.
Apart from drawing attention to the irony, my point in that opening paragraph is that to understand the reasons behind not only these new changes, but all the others that came before [like a single league in 2003, Grand Finals 2010, Addition of Italians for 2010-11], we have to appreciate the purpose of the competition.
In an ideal rugby universe there would be a single Irish club competition similar to the Aviva Premiership. That way we would have never needed the provinces because we already had existing clubs like Cork Con and Clontarf to lead the way. Wales in turn would rely on their own league with the likes of Pontypridd and Neath while the Scots would have Heriot’s and Ayr among others.
This scenario would have the game fully within the control of each union who could grow the popularity of their competitions as well as give their players regular top flight action, and at the end of each season the top clubs could go forth to join the best from England and France [not quite sure if the Italian clubs are even good enough for a utopian example!] for rugby’s answer to the Champions’ League.
But anyone that knows anything about the realities of rugby is fully aware that what I’m outlining above is never going to happen. For varying reasons in the different countries, there’s nowhere near enough of a fan base for any single club to get them close to the Saracens and the Clérmonts of this world. And every year the Premiership and Top 14 get stronger and stronger and their TV loot gets bigger and bigger.
So needs must. The unions have to work together to form a league with the right amount of pro clubs that can compete with the other two. And I don’t just mean ‘league’ in the sporting 'round-robin' sense. I also mean it in a ‘Justice League’ sense [maybe ‘League of Nations’ would be more accurate but it would be nowhere near as cool].
Of course there have been many other suggestions as to how we can go, like a ‘Lions League’ for the four Lions nations as mooted by Keith Wood recently. As far as I’m concerned, this is a good idea but it’s as likely to happen as the national club competitions I point out above. The English and French systems are like Russian oligarchs that can’t be shifted - fate dictates that we’re among what’s left over and we must do what we can to piece together a third.
And if you think working to produce a product that will appease all fans in first three, then four, and now five markets is a piece of cake, then you might as well nip over to Brussels and sort out the Brexit talks and when you’re done there, pop over to the Middle East for a spot of reconciliation - no bother to you.
The fact is, the end product is never going to suit everyone. Ever. There will always be something wrong somewhere no matter what we do. Which is why we must return to the prime directive for the competition. Top flight rugby throughout the season for each union and a decent amount of professional players? Check. Competitiveness throughout the nations? Well if you squint your eyes and ignore Italy for a second then yes, check - the last three champions hailed from different nations. A revenue stream to match England and France? OK no, not yet, but it’s definitely on the rise and adding the South Africans gets us a whole lot closer.
It’s not our job as rugby fans to blindly accept everything the ‘alickadoos’ do with this amazing game. With the bulk of the new Pro14 changes already leaked before Monday’s announcement, I already laid out my few quibbles and having now seen the details I definitely spotted the odd devil, like the fact that I lose a regular season match on my season ticket.
But as far as I’m concerned, to say you’re not prepared to give the new league a chance at least for one campaign is to say you either don’t know or don’t care why those original fifteen teams got together in the first place back in August 2001.
With the impressive talent pool at Leinster’s disposal which I harped on last week, I’m determined to enjoy the 2017/18 season and I don’t see why having the Dragons or Zebre taken off the schedule for the Cheetahs and Kings to be added, with even more chance to qualify for the playoffs thrown in, should make me any less enthusiastic about it.
Bring it on, I say. JLP