Con­nacht of­fer hope that Celtic tiger will roar again

The Herald - Herald Sport - - GUINNESS PRO12 FINAL - KEVIN FERRIE

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

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