The first person to comment on my efforts asked me to consider the future of the league particularly in light of stories that the Italians are trying to join. So, as we have just had an international weekend with no matches and because the subject is interesting, here goes.
“Yes, you might have to go and play in Wales”
The Magners League has a chequered history. Since its foundation as the Celtic League, it has changed format and content a few times. It was created as a necessary step to provide a competitive environment for the Irish, Welsh and Scots where purely domestic tournaments could not have been viable, given the numbers of fully professional sides that could be supported.
It coincided also with a consolidation of the professional game in both Scotland and Wales around super-clubs or provinces. In Wales, in particular, this resulted in very significant anger and antagonism from those who wanted to maintain the traditions of some very proud and historically successful clubs. Most extreme, both in crazy ambition and furious reaction was the suggestion to merge Llanelli with Swansea and Neath, three clubs within fifteen miles of each other that had fostered ancient and never forgotten rivalries.
Llanelli famously succeeded in fighting off the WRU’s insistence but Swansea and Neath merged to become the Ospreys and Bridgend and Pontypridd combined to become the Celtic Warriors. Cardiff maintained independence as the Blues and East Wales clubs, Newport, Ebbw Vale and Pontypool created the Dragons. Keen readers will note that the Celtic Warriors are no longer with us.
In Scotland, a similar fate befell Borders and so in the Magners League today we have four Irish provinces (with historical integrity), four Welsh “regions” and two Scottish “super-clubs’ in Edinburgh and Glasgow. During the life of the league, we have had different formats, including a cup-final and in yet another format change, next season sees the planned introduction of play-offs.
Irish sides dominate the competition’s brief history, with Leinster winning twice, Munster and Ulster once each, Llanelli Scarlets and Ospreys also with one win each. Leinster and Ulster have also dominated in terms of ”best support” taking the laurels for best average crowd each season from 2003-4 onwards.
So now, will we have Italians, how will such an experiment work and is it a good thing…and if so for whom?
There is a dearth of detail about the proposals but it would seem that whilst the Italians wanted four teams, the final proposal is likely to be for two “regional centres” based upon Rome and Treviso, largely indigenous in terms of players, intended to join from 2010-11.
In practical terms, this requires four extra weekends to be found and there are two, possibly three options for this. The league could revert to a start at the beginning of September rather than later in that month; Six Nations weekends could be used; or, more likely, some combination of the two.
There is one other “opportunity” – the EDF Anglo-Welsh cup ends in its present incarnation next season and it is not yet clear if it will be continued, albeit in another form. So, practically, The Italians can be accommodated, but is it a good thing? Who would benefit?
The Italians are convinced that they will be able to develop more competitive international teams, and, no doubt, there will be a beneficial effect of that nature but we need to bear in mind that the majority of the top Italian players ply their trade in France and England and that will not change.
Presumably, the two Italian regions will be fed by the “regular” Italian clubs in their domestic league (not dissimilar to the Welsh or Irish situation) and the regions in turn will continue to be targeted by the English and French. So, one can see a development benefit for Italian rugby, perhaps leading also to higher standards in the Six Nations.
But, is that the role of the Magners League? Will the league benefit? Already, the structure cannot allow for relegation (and promotion). There is no place for relegated clubs to go in their domestic environments and the arrival of two Italian regions will simply consolidate that fact, leading perhaps to an element of stagnation – something that I have already heard Welsh supporters complaining about.
Will crowds turn out to watch the Ospreys hammer Treviso? Will Connacht attract large crowds in Rome?
Finally, consider the Heineken Cup? How will qualification work for Italy? Will the two regions be guaranteed entry or will Italy’s representation be reduced to one. Or, will qualification continue to come from the Italian league – surely not?
Many, many questions to be answered – I wonder if the deal is really done. Andy Robinson, now coaching Edinburgh, has gone on record as opposing the idea, at least at this juncture, suggesting it might devalue what is still a fledgling but growing competition.
As far as I can tell, no one else from within the game or league has commented. I think I support Mr Robinson, but then, I’m only a supporter, a fan and we won’t be asked our views….but I’d love to hear yours.
By Denis Brennan