Magners League: embracing the Italians?

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.

Treviso

“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

13 thoughts on “Magners League: embracing the Italians?

  1. Presumably the Italy situation would be the same as the Scottish one, both teams enter the heinkein cup and the good players leave to england and france. The magners is all about preparing players for international rugby, admittidly it is more competative in recent years, but the main thrust by the union-owned teams is to generate players to win test matches and earn the union (and therefore themselves) money. If the Italians joined their half backs, for instance, would face must tougher teams week in week out and would surely improve. This is a good thing for Italian rugby and a good thing for the 6 Nations. However I think improving Italian rugby is low on the scots agenda, and possibly Wales too as they have lost to Italy recently.

    The nub of the argument is do we want a competative Italy? If yes they should be let into the magners league. If no, then why not?

  2. Just to correct the above, the Ospreys have won the title twice and not the once that you credit them.

  3. My thanks to Chris and my apologies to everyone! He’s quite right. The Ospreys have won twice.
    Stuart makes a key point that I’d like to pick up on. He says that for the Scots and perhaps the Welsh, “improving Italian rugby … is low on the … agenda”. Why would this not be the case? Does he imply that for the French and English or the Irish (in Magners terms missing completely) it might be a higher priority. I don’t think so! It cannot be the job of The Magners League to improve the competitiveness of the Six Nations any more than it is the responsibility of the English Premiership or the French Top 14, both of whom have made this point frequently by engaging in major stand-offs with their unions and ERC! Fundamentally, I don’t think the nub of the argument is “do we want a competitive Italy”. The league stands on its own. Does Magners League need Italy – not does Italy need the Magners League? My answer remains “No” whilst I fervently wish for a competitive Italy. To be very provocative – why not have the Italians join with the French albeit in D2 – fierce promotion and relegation struggle, excellent for Italian rugby. Shall we ask les francais? Or… do we know the answer?

  4. Thanks for taking up my suggestion for a topic. Another you have to remember is that the regions have the ear of their unions and will not want the sponsership/tv money being split another two ways. Crowds would also be the biggest problem I think. Still I would like to see it, the 6 nations would be an even better tournament if Itlay were ever genuine contenders.

  5. I think the only argument in it’s favour is a potential financial one in that Italy due simply to population size is a far larger and wealthier market than all the Celtic Countries put together many times over . So possibly in the medium to long term more chance of higher sponsorship and TV rights money . “Soccer” holds sway in Italy of course but just attracting a fraction of the money there (post recession that is ) woud be megabucks.

    Playing wise there is nothing in its favour at the moment and I know the Welsh regions would just love to get involved in some more beefed up Anglo/ Welsh thingy but the momentum seems to be swinging the other way in England.

    P.s. The Magners league has only been going in its current format for 5 years (4 years with the Magners sponsorship and one as the Celtic league)The Ospreys have won it twice in that time and Scarlets once so 3 out of 5 Welsh wins since it was a proper league , before then it was a Celtic cup type competition with Welsh clubs up against Irish provinces with far larger resources and the Scots coming late to it , just not quite the Irish dominance mentioned once there was a more level playing field.

  6. I need to pull you up on the comment that the Dragons was formed from Ebbw Vale, Pontypool and Newport. The reality is that its Newport and Newport alone.

    Ebbw Vale and Pontypool were excluded from the discussions about the formation of the “region” and had no say on the Board. This wound is still open and the sop of now calling the team the Newport Gwent Dragons has done nothing to make it truly regional.

  7. Martin,
    My apologies to you and my thanks for pointing out my error. For those not resident in Wales, I think Martin has also very succinctly underlined my point in the original article that the formation of the “regions” generated “anger and antagonism”. The same type of strong feeling (to put it at its mildest) is still felt in Pontypridd and Bridgend in relation to the Cardiff Blues and I know of Neath and Swansea supporters who have refused to this day to support the Ospreys. All of this underlines the fact that in Wales, the WRU does not own the regions (although it appears that they might like to do so, something I may return to). Local and traditional club loyalties dominate, sometimes in supporting the new entities and sometimes not. Stuart’s comment above about union-owned teams certainly does not apply in Wales where the relationship between the regions and the WRU seems similar to that in England.

  8. Dennis don’t, just don’t get us started on the Cardiff Blues being the region foisted on us in Pontypridd as that particular scab doesn’t need to be picked any more .
    A quick wander around the town and surrounding valleys and you can count the number of Ospreys shirts , caps etc etc in their hundreds and nary a Blues shirt to be found . Bridgend is now a rugby league town of course and the money and talent lost to that particular game will not help the Wales team in the future -that’s not slagging off Rugby League by the way it’s just a situation that the WRU could have avoided.

    Now I need to go and lie down in a darkened room and dream of a past life where Ponty played Bath. Leicester , Brive etc etc at Sardis Road and what games they were too with wins usually at the end of them.

  9. I didn’t mean to pick the scab!. I just wanted to emphasise to those outside the hothouse just what “local” and “club” means. I’ve been to the House of Pain as an outsider and I have to admit I miss it (in a sense). Anyhow, ’nuff said … except maybe for that last point about the WRU…!

  10. Cheers Denis I’m sort of over it too myself to a large extent though many aren’t ! , I just go and search out” Battle of Brive” on youtube if I want to raise real memories.Rugby has changed a lot in the intervening decade lets say (maybe not all for the worst ). You’ll always get 3 million opinions in Wales about rugby issues of course but onwards and upwards .

    I think a good topic might be whether the Magners league might gain further weight and interest if it was the key to Heineken qualification for all the teams involved rather than just the highest placed of the bottom Welsh , Irish or Scots side in the Italian play off for just the one spare place. Just a suggestion throw it out if you like ;-)

  11. Obviously at the moment it is a case of the Italians requiring the Magners league more than the Magners league requiring the Italians.

    However, if the Italians are admitted and develop 2 competitive teams, this will be good for the Magners league in terms of audience and sponsor interest and a more dynamic and competitive league!

    I personally would love to see the Italians enter a couple of teams just to help them further develop their playing stocks and competitivness and broaden the appeal of the game in Italy. It just won’t happen with their current domestic competition and having their best teams play a couple of games in the Heineken Cup.

    A competitive Italy is both beneficial for the Celtic nations and Italy!

  12. Thanks Denis.
    I would love for the italians to enter the magners.I would have a few reservations about the Italians coming aborad at the moment.

    1. Has anyone given any thought to the long term structure of the league. As it stands the standard, quaility and intenseityof the league is improving year on year. If you brought the Italians into the league how would that effect the quality of the league.
    2. The current number of games in the league is just about right. it gives the top players the quailty to compete in the 6n and the hk without playing to much. it also gives the other players a desent number of quality games who are not in the 6n.

    I would like to see some other adjustments to the league before the Italians got involved.
    1. another scottish team. they have the playing population for it and i think the support. after the border/reavers were disbanded it left the scots with only two professional teams, which is too small a playing base in professional terms. i know the scotish union has big money problems at the moment but surely the long term health of the national team will suffer greatly.

    2.A long term plan for the magners. i think it should aim for 2 divisions of 9 teams per division.
    The extra teams would come from 5 italian regions, extra scotish region and the other 4 teams made up of 2 spanish regions and 1 portugise region.
    Looks Crazy but it might work if you planned for it over the next few years.
    Have the Italians slim down there league first and put some more resources into it. Keep existing arrangements for hk qualifing, with the bottom place teams playing the italians for the third spot. try and get the existing spanish regions up to italian levels and the same for a portugse region. Have them form a league and after a short number of years convert that league into magners d2 with promotion for the top team and one play off place for the second team. At least one team goes up to d1. After a number of years the weaker d1 teams get pushed down ( connaght,dragons) and two italian teams come up. it would take time but with a blueprint for say 5 to 10 years in place everyone benifits.
    The italians still get there hk places as it stands.
    I know looks crazy, but would be much better for the italians to have 5 teams in the long run. also might give the spanish a chance at developing a better international team(ditto portuguse). it would make the magners much more exiciting with a team to be relegated. no lazy end of season games.
    Sorry wasn’t going to be that long!

  13. well guys in some of your comments seems that are arriving “aliens” in the Celtic League ,..I just wanted make you know that in Mantua or Parma lived too celtic tribes before of the Roman conquest , and that the Romans named northern Italy til Rubicon river Cisalpine Gaul and France Transalpine Gaul,
    have a look:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cisalpine_Gaul

    regards

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