Belfast Telegraph

Alan Quinlan: We must reduce number of PRO14 games - fans are being short-changed

Crowd puller: Can you imagine Ulster v Connacht (last night, pictured) and Munster v Leinster as a future New Year double header at the Aviva?
Crowd puller: Can you imagine Ulster v Connacht (last night, pictured) and Munster v Leinster as a future New Year double header at the Aviva?

By Alan Quinlan

In this festive period of overindulgence it can be difficult to remember that less is often more.

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The last few months have shone a spotlight on some worrying cracks in the game's pillars and they must be tended to before serious structural damage occurs.

The cause of these issues is the length of the rugby season and the overwhelming amount of fixtures.

Between Ireland internationals, PRO14 and Champions Cup commitments, a successful season could include 45 games - it's far too many, and the club competitions are suffering for it.

Munster v Leinster at Thomond Park should get the pulses racing, evoking memories of those fiery derbies of yesteryear, but it just doesn't capture the imagination like it should when neither side is locked and loaded with their best players.

To be honest, the idea that such a huge rivalry in world rugby has come to this makes me uncomfortable. These are the fixtures that need to be protected; it's one of the club game's golden eggs.

Mismatches are ruining the PRO14 and the Champions Cup and something has to change. I would welcome a British and Irish league - including the Italian and South African sides - but for the moment I'm proposing reducing the number of regular-season games in the PRO14 by five, from 21 to 16.

It would be a simple adjustment, keeping the current structure but playing the other sides in your own conference - other than your provincial rivals, you'd keep the six derby games - just once, rather than twice. It would create room to breathe and help straighten the airwaves of a competition that have been bent out of shape by the congested rugby calendar.

Instead of using the PRO14 as a developmental competition for large parts of the season, the added breaks would allow teams to play their international players in a larger proportion of the games. And it would even free up fringe and academy players to line out more regularly in an 'A' competition or for their AIL sides.

The PRO14 is an excellent place for rising stars to get a taste of the senior game, but they are much better off coming in to a side as one of a few changes to the first team, rather than essentially playing as part of an academy second-string.

You learn an awful lot more when you are thrown into a real first-team environment; it holds greater meaning too.

Thomond Park is a sell-out today and last night's game at Kingspan Stadium attracted plenty of attention, but in a competitive Christmas sporting market, rugby's offering could be so much better.

What if the PRO14 added a break week in December, giving the players Christmas week off for example, and decided to run all of the derby games on New Year's Day? We have seen the success of the 'Judgement Day' concept in Wales - could you imagine the buzz that an annual interpro double-header at the Aviva, on January 1, would generate?

Ulster v Connacht and Munster v Leinster at a sold-out Lansdowne Road, with a mandate to play most of their internationals a month out from the start of the Six Nations. Now that would get people excited.

I don't have all the answers, these are just ideas that would need some tailoring, but we need to have a conversation about where the game is going. After all, even if a British and Irish league is the final destination, that won't be until 2022.

Ospreys chairman Rob Evans is convinced that is where we are headed, and the idea certainly ticks a lot of boxes - the 26 teams from the PRO14 and Premiership spread across two divisions; the threat of relegation, creating new rivalries in an exciting new competition.

You would imagine too that such a league would court a bumper TV deal, maybe one to rival the money that the French clubs enjoy.

However, if a British and Irish league is to become a reality, a commitment to player welfare should be paramount.

If league organisers want front-line players featuring regularly, you cannot expect a team to play more than 20 games to win a league title.

For now though, until the current TV deals run out in 2022, and the intentions of CVC Capital Partners - major investors in both leagues - are outlined, we have to work with what we have.

Super Rugby runs just fine, albeit with a more demanding travel schedule, with 16 regular-season games. It's not a perfect system by any means - New Zealand teams have won seven of the last eight editions - but last season the Sunwolves were the only side to win less than 30% of their games.

The same can't be said of the PRO14, where at least three sides invariably lag well behind - the usual suspects, Zebre and the Kings, have been joined by Ospreys this season with just one win to date and the points difference of each has already fallen below -100.

Far too often we see clubs travelling to Leinster and Munster with second-string sides, seemingly accepting defeat before they begin the trip.

A solitary bonus point is seen as a victory, and there is something deeply troubling about that level of ambition in professional sport.

The mismatches do no one any good and in an international context, it could be a factor in Irish players not being sufficiently battle-hardened when it comes to peaking at the end of a World Cup cycle.

This is not a specific problem in the PRO14 either; the European Cup that I will always adore is in a similar state of flux with so many teams essentially giving up on it midway through the pool stages, or, worse still, before it even begins.

The root cause of this is the domestic demands; the threat of relegation or, if your eyes are at the other end, the prospect of playing 24 games to win the Premiership, or 28/29 to be crowned Top 14 champions.

Each club competition will be desperate not to give an inch, but they are all pulling and dragging out of a pool of players who are struggling to deal with the demands of such a physical game. The Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy, and Joe Marler have already spoken out about reducing the workloads; they won't be the last.

Something has to give, the PRO14 and Champions Cup are clearly suffering. We can no longer paper over the cracks.

Thousands of Irish rugby fans are still paying good money to see their provinces at this time of year, but I can't help feeling they are being short-changed.

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