Connacht offer hope that Celtic tiger will roar again
SATURDAY’S Grand Final in Edinburgh represented a potentially pivotal moment for rugby’s Guinness PRO12 competition.
After a decade that had brought steady development since its inception as the Celtic League there had been clear signs of decline more recently.
Its growth out of the Welsh-Scottish League, during which our professional game limp around the shift into the new millennium, had more than coincided with a boom period for the Celtic game as the soon-to-be Irish powerhouses entered the fray.
Seven Six Nations titles, four of them with Grand Slams between 2005 and 2015 shared by Wales and Ireland and, more tellingly, five European Cup wins by Munster and Leinster in a sevenseason spell between 2006 and 2012 spoke to the way in which the intelligent use of domestic competition could maximise resources for the more prestigious tournaments. The were evidence was, that even as it evolved from Celtic League into PRO12, it was serving its purpose magnificently.
With the introduction of the Italian teams and a play-off system the competitive and commercial potential of the PRO12 was growing as it fed off the success in those major tournaments. It meant, too, that player welfare could be maintained throughout the season but that one of the best teams would still emerge as champions
Their dominance in the Six Nations and what was then the Heineken Cup was, however, a constant source of embarrassment to the heavily resourced English and French clubs and, unable to beat them on the pitch, they took to the negotiating table and won, forcing the PRO12 to fall into line with their preferred attritional model of having to fight for points throughout the season, at whatever cost.
Little wonder Leinster’s head coach Leo Cullen spoke on Saturday of having had to use 56 players this season, while his Connacht counterpart Pat Lam used 46, closer to American Football rosters than rugby club squads.
This season had brought the most compelling evidence yet of the damage done. The World Cup in England was rugby’s greatest tournament to date, but it showed where European rugby stands in world terms as, for the first time, not a single northern hemisphere side made it into the semi-finals.
Consider then what that said about PRO12 rugby when, for the first time ever, later in the same season, not a single Celtic team made it into the knockout stages of the European Champions Cup.
Against that background the decision to copy others once again by deciding the venue for the Grand Final long in advance, looked like a hostage to fortune, all the more so when the decision was made Scottish capital.
A 67,500 capacity stadium represented a guarantee that even had Glasgow Warriors repeated the feat of the previous two years by reaching the final, there would have been row upon row of empty seats and so it proved, with the stadium barely half full.
Once the finalists were known, Ireland’s leading rugby writer Gerry Thornley wrote articles which were scathing in their criticism of that venue choice and he revealed on Saturday that he has not had such a huge mailbag of supportive messages in a long time.
Yet, in the end, the PRO12 organisers just about got away with it, thanks to a to go to the combination of a glorious sunny afternoon and a wondrous performance from what was, for many years, the tournament’s most unloved team.
There was a huge lesson for all concerned, too, in the style with which they played. The sunshine meanwhile meant just enough neutrals turned up to generate some sense of occasion and the passion of the Connacht supporters, backed by the goodwill of all others, including their Leinster cousins, showed rugby’s virtues at their best.
It was, in the end, a day which offered the latest proof that the PRO12 must have the confidence to do things in a way that suits Celts and Italians.
THAT WINNING FEELING: Connacht, once the PRO12’s most unloved team, proved popular winners in the end