Belfast Telegraph

Rugby chiefs ponder major revamp to enhance quality of PRO12

By Jonathan Bradley

With none of the Guinness PRO12 sides competing in last weekend's Champions Cup quarter-finals, questions surrounding the quality of the league have naturally increased with organisers admitting they are looking at all angles in an effort to improve the competition.

A PRO12 board meeting in Dublin last week sparked a new round of speculation and it seems a certainty that change is on the horizon.

The irony of course is that ignoring the fact that Newport Gwent Dragons' Challenge Cup semi-final next week is the furthest any of the Celtic sides will progress in European competition, the domestic league is enjoying its most enthralling season to date.

The advent of qualification for continental competition two seasons ago has injected intrigue to a league which in the past had final rounds that often left teams with little to play for while Connacht's emergence as contenders is set to shake up the status quo of the play-offs.

Looking at the table, and this weekend's round of seemingly defining fixtures, Ulster's Director of Rugby Les Kiss reflected: "I think the PRO12 is as tough as its ever been.

"You couldn't ask for a better product. It's going to keep getting more exciting right to the end."

And while that sentiment may well turn out to be true, the need to compete with the behemoths of England's Aviva Premiership and France's Top 14 has tournament bosses considering a radical overhaul.

PRO12 Rugby Managing Director Martin Anayi spoke recently about an alarming loss of interest during international windows, prompting the idea that the league could look to avoid fixture clashes during the Six Nations or autumn Tests in the future.

"We have more international players than any other competition, but we play games in the international window," he said.

"That is self-defeating. What should be our big strength is our biggest weakness.

"In that period of the season, crowds and TV audiences are down by 45 per cent. And with the star players missing, it creates the perception that it's a development competition. We recognise that perception and we need to address it.

"We need to give people more reason to watch our teams more often and that means the international players. It's not a maybe, it's a must."

While only one aspect, there is a feeling that a significant, and as Anayi says "creative", solution is required.

"We are going through a consultation process at the moment, but the overwhelming consensus of the chief executives is lets make positive changes that are good for the tournament," he continued.

"You have to be creative. If you are going to play all your games outside of the international window, you either have to look at a reduction in the number of teams or look at a different structure to the season with conferences, which allows you to expand.

"It's a good competition, it's getting better, but it could be great. We need to do some big things over the next 12 months.

"Let's avoid the international window and get our star players in more meaningful games, more often. Let's have a fan-first philosophy and really take the competition forward."

With these comments in mind, the PRO12's chairman Gerald Davies appeared at the Kingspan Stadium last week and, in a wide-ranging and illuminating discussion, it was his views on the league that proved most fascinating.

The Lions legend spoke of Anayi's idea of a new structure that would see conferences implemented, perhaps even involving expansion into other markets, with the over-riding theme a need to increase revenue streams.

"We'll be looking at the Guinness PRO12 as it is, from top to bottom," the former Welsh wing said. "The structures in place internally, the governance, board membership and the competition itself.

"Is it organised in the best way possible? Are there other ways in which we should be looking at it?

"For example, should we have two conferences? Should we stay as we are? We're looking at the media, looking at how its reported, who reports it.

"We have seven broadcasters, is that acceptable? These are the things that we're looking at. I don't like the word product but we're looking at what we've got and how best to improve it."

While the addition of a Georgian side has been mooted in some quarters - there are no plans to review the inclusion of the faltering Italian sides - Davies continued by discussing the idea of trying to break into the American and London markets.

The Premiership recently took a fixture State-side but, as Davies alluded to, wouldn't there be greater interest in Irish sides among fans in places like New York and Boston?

Concluding that plans would become clear in the coming weeks and months, it seems certain that, while the final three rounds of this campaign are sure to be dramatic, there will be plenty of action off the field too.

Belfast Telegraph

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