We are now nearly 4 games in to the new European Champions Cup tournament but we have seen the best the Pro12 can offer struggling to compete with their French and English counterparts.
As it stands it is fair to say Leinster (0-4), Treviso (0-4), Munster (1-2) and the Scarlets (0-4) are already out of the tournament.
Ulster are realistically battling for a runner’s up spot but with a tough game against Saracens away and then Oyannax at home to come, it will be a difficult task.
The Ospreys who are topping pool 2 at the moment with Clermont’s away game against Bordeaux postponed have the French giants at home and Exeter away left to play. It would take 2 great performances to see them advance to the knock out stages which on recent form looks unlikely. Clermont must fancy a double win against Bordeaux so the trip to the Liberty could be crucial.
Glasgow’s back to back victories over the Scarlets has put them in a good position in pool 3 alongside Racing and Northampton Saints. They have Saints away next and then Racing at home; it’s difficult to see them winning both of those.
The bookies don’t often get things wrong and the best odds they have on a Pro12 winner of this season’s Champion’s Cup is Ulster at 33/1. Glasgow are 125/1 and the Ospreys 150/1.
The decline in the Pro12
Things are not looking good on the Pro12 front. Last year the Pro12 provided just one team for the quarter finals but we could potentially find ourselves in the situation towards the end of the season where we have an all Anglo-French quarter final line up. This isn’t good for the game in the northern hemisphere.
As the graph below shows, the Pro12 has consistently contributed at least two of the tournament’s quarter finalists – usually Irish teams, with the dominance of Leinster and Munster being augmented by a recently resurgent Ulster.
The other noticeable trend is the drop off in Welsh representation post the 2009/10 season, save for Cardiff Blues’ appearance in the 2011/12 quarter final.
To be a strong and popular tournament the European Champions Cup needs as many teams and nations to be competitive as it can. The way the club and regional rugby scene is evolving in Europe we are in serious danger of having the Pro12 teams from the 4 nations being uncompetitive at the top level in Europe.
We will now look at each Pro12 nation and their historical success and future prospects.
Ireland has consistently provided strong teams that have had great success in Europe; in fact they have dominated the tournament in certain phases of its history.
Between the 2005/06 season and the 2011/12 season Ireland had 5 of the 7 winners of what was called the Heineken Cup – Munster winning it twice and Leinster 3 times. Ulster joined in on the act in 2012 when an all-Ireland affair in Twickenham saw Leinster take away the trophy for the third time.
But since that day in south west London the Euro bubble seems to have burst for the Irish teams. They have still contributed teams to the knock out stages but the last 3 finals have not contained a single Irish team; just Leinster made it to the quarter finals last year.
This year’s tournament hasn’t gone particularly well either. Dai Young’s Wasps defeated Leinster convincingly in their own back yard and they followed that up with an away defeat at Bath before losing back to back games against Toulon.
Munster seem to be in a fairly rapid state of decline so it was always going to be tough to come out of a group which contains Leicester Tigers and Stade Francais.
It is conceivable there will be no Irish team in the quarter finals come April next year.
Since their introduction to the top tier of European rugby, Italian teams have always struggled to be competitive against Europe’s elite.
Benetton Treviso have made the best fist of the Italian clubs but even their record is fairly modest; in 18 full seasons of European rugby they have won just 19 games. A more depressing statistic is that in the last 10 full seasons they have only recorded 5 victories – Ospreys (H 14/15), Ospreys (H 12/13), Biarritz (H 11/12), Perpignan (H 9/10) and NG Dragons (A 7/8).
This season they have again found the going tough with heavy defeats away at Munster (32-7) and at home to Leicester (3-36).
Just a couple of seasons ago there were glimmers of hope that Treviso were starting to put together a team that could be more competitive. In the 2012/13 Pro12 season they finished a commendable 7th out of 12 teams – far above their traditional position in the bottom couple of spots.
Although they only notched up a single win, they came 2 minutes away from beating Leicester at home and put in two commendable performances against Toulouse.
Treviso rugby seemed on the up but a number of factors have conspired to put Treviso back to the bottom of the European pile.
Scotland’s European representatives have also found it hard to make a lasting mark in European rugby.
Glasgow Warriors’ recent improvements at the Pro12 level haven’t translated to success at European level and the reigning Pro12 champions already looking unlikely to progress beyond this year’s group stage following a home defeat to Northampton Saints.
Since a solitary quarter final appearance in the early days of the Heineken Cup, Glasgow have failed to get out of their group in the top European competition.
Edinburgh have been slightly more successful with the highlight being a semi-final appearance in the 2011/12 season. This was an exceptional season for the team and represents the only time they have got out of the pool in the last 10 seasons.
They now play in the second tier European Challenge Cup.
It is a sad reality that the Welsh regions have not been troubling the latter stages of the top European competition since the 2011/12 season when the Cardiff Blues made it out of their pool before being thumped by Leinster 34-3 in the quarter final in Dublin.
Since then, the civil war within the Welsh game has conspired to reduce the strength of the regions to the point where they cannot compete against the powerhouse teams from France, England and Ireland.
It wasn’t that long ago that Cardiff Blues were ranked in the top seeds group for the Heineken Cup (the 2012/13 season) and just losing to Leicester in a penalty goal decided semi-final (2008/09), but with the team now playing in the second tier Challenge Cup (and losing to Harlequins’ second team at home) a brighter future seems a long way off.
The Ospreys’ zenith came between 2007 and 2010 when they played 3 quarter finals but couldn’t quite make the leap to achieve a semi final spot. Since then their stock has fallen to the point where they finished last season with a comprehensive home defeat to Northampton Saints and followed this up with a humbling defeat to Treviso.
The Osprey’s have had a couple of reasonable results in Europe this year but with the French giants Clermont in the Ospreys’ pool this year, progressing to the quarter finals will be a very difficult task.
Llanelli Scarlets have arguably been the best performing Welsh team in Europe over the years with a semi-final spot in the 2006/07 season their highlight. The Scarlets’ recent performances though have mirrored the pattern in the other Welsh teams – a gradual decline to the point where they are not expected to make the knock out stages of the top European competition. After 4 defeats this year they are already out of the tournament.
With two teams in the second tier competition and the Ospreys and Scarlets struggling in the Champions Cup, having a Welsh region get to the quarter finals of the Champions Cup looks unlikely for the foreseeable future.
Can the decline be halted?
There are probably two main factors at play which is driving the changes we are seeing.
The first is that the Pro12 teams have large numbers of players that have been away on international duty and therefore it will take longer for them to integrate back in to the domestic set up. This is particularly true for the likes of Glasgow, Leinster and the Ospreys who effectively contribute their first team squad to international duty.
A constant theme on theblitzdefence articles is the balance between a strong domestic league and ensuring a competitive national team. It is no coincidence that over the past few years the Welsh and Irish national teams have been strong because they have been given prominence over the regional teams, while the opposite is true in England and France.
The second factor, which is more structural, is we are seeing the impact of the asymmetrical distribution of money and resources across the European leagues filtering through to the performances on the field.
The obvious examples are the huge playing squads and resources of the French teams which means they can mop up some of the best players in the world and have benches that are as strong as some teams first XV. It is not surprising that these teams are beating those with much smaller budgets.
Those teams with the money and the ability to generate more income will be in the big markets of France and England. They have the benefit of wealthy investors, large domestic markets and with that comes TV deals and more money.
It is difficult to see the Pro12 teams competing with the growing financial muscle of France and England given their respective populations and wealth, in fact we would go as far to say it will be impossible to compete if the current trends continue.
The only possible means of keeping up with the big nations’ financial clout is the emergence of a UK-Irish league which would include the Pro12 nations and allow them to share in the wealth that comes from the larger market.
Until that time comes (if it ever does) expect to see the continued gradual decline in the competitiveness of the Pro12 teams at the top European table. The ladder is being pulled up and the Pro12 needs to find a way to quickly grab hold before they are left too far behind.
Follow theblitzdefence on Facebook: click here