We rarely have good things to say about the Pro12 – don’t get us wrong, we love the games, and think its underrated as a development tool (ask Mike Cheika if Leinster would have won the HEC in 2009 without winning the then-Magners the previous year), but it is a bit dowdy. Trips to an empty Murrayfield, the presence of the zebra-bunnies, the Irish interpros with 2.5th teams and the lamentable organisation of the Welsh regions do not exactly compare well to the skill levels and intensity of the Top14 or the glitzy try-fest that is Ooooooooooooooh the Premiership. Plus its boring most of the time to be frank – its generally highly predictable.
It might seem a bit rich to be taking a pop at the Pro12 for not being competitive enough when the other two European pro leagues have had the same 10 teams in the playoffs for the past two seasons, but its true – the Pro12 has been pretty dull for much of its history. Leinster, Munster and the Ospreys have dominated, and the odd challenge by someone else is noticeable by its rarity.
Its easy for McCafferty and the like to point fingers at the lack of relegation, but its hard to see how that has benefitted, say, the Dragons or Connacht. Relegation, and the creative destruction it sometimes wreaks, can sometimes be a positive force – just ask the juvenated Saints.
But the cartel may be changing – its been a positive season on the depth front. For a start, Ulster might win it this year. Before the play-offs started, we would have picked Leinster, but after struggling past Glasgow, and post-Amlin, they look a little beaten up – Ulster’s stroll in the park past a lamentable Scarlets effort has set them up well, and the drive that comes from honouring the tragic Nevin Spence could well be too much for Leinster. To be truthful, we’re split down the middle (naturally), but since Egg holds the pen right now, he’s going to pick Ulster by a nose.
Getting back to the Scarlets, we get that the regions are not in a good place right now, and that the structures of Welsh professional rugby are somewhat teetering, but none of that excuses the lack of effort from the Scarlets’ two Lions (one more than Ulster, don’t forget) in their semi-final – Johnny Davies looked panicked and passed poorly all day, and George North’s statuesque defending would have embarrassed Lesley Vainikolo.
That aside, the Scarlets were there for their season-long consistency, and most of them will be back next year (though not North unfortunately). Ulster won’t just be back, they’ll expect to win it. What then of Glasgae, the third cartel-buster in the playoffs?
Unlike this season, when Glasgow had a summer of flux, having to manage the loss of key players such as Richie Grey and Kelly Brown ,and a long-serving coach in Sean Lineen, they will be able to build on top of this season’s excellent effort. Last years recruits (Matawalu, Maitland and Strauss – an excellent summer of work) will have had this season under their belts, and they’ll be even better for it.
The most interesting challenge next season may well come from Treviso – the Italians have always had that ‘plucky underdog’ look about them, where they can win at home, albeit narrowly, but struggle away. This season, they started winning away, and handing out some hurt to teams as well (notably Munster and the Scarlets) – their wretched winter ruined their chances of finishing even further up the league than seventh,
So next season, as well as the old firm of Leinster, Munster and the Ospreys sniffing around the playoffs (Ospreys and, particularly, Munster will want to improve on this seasons showing – Munster, like Ulster last year, gave up after the HEC quarter-final), you’ll have Ulster, Glasgow, the Scarlets, Treviso, and possibly even Cardiff if they get their ass together. As well as seven competitive teams, you have teams from all four constituent countries will harbour playoff ambitions for the first time – and that’s a good thing, particularly as Sky begin the process of glamming it up.
As for Saturday, lets enjoy it – thankfully the Ulster-Leinster rivalry is still a friendly one, and its going to be a sunny, beery, relaxing day out! Plus we’re certain the home team will win.