It was only a couple of months ago in this article (The declining power of the Pro12 in Europe) that we suggested that there was a real chance that not a single Pro 12 team would make the European Champions Cup quarter this season. It turns out we were right.
After Sunday’s final pool stages, what was the Europe’s premier ‘club’* competition has now become a decidedly Anglo-French affair. This is the line up for the knock-out stages:
Leicester Tigers v Stade Francais
Racing 92 v Toulon
Saracens v Northampton Saints
Wasps v Exeter Chiefs
It doesn’t take an Eddie Butler to spot there is no representation from any of the Pro12 nations. A giant shift in European rugby is taking place and the Pro12 teams are being rapidly left behind
Is it that simple?
There are a couple of caveats that should be attached to the performances of the Pro12 teams in this year’s tournament. Firstly, a number of their teams had a large representation at the Rugby World Cup which will have undoubtedly disrupted their season.
Glasgow Warriors contributed 21 players to the World Cup and have struggled this season to match last season’s form. The fact Leinster contributed 17 players seems to also back up the theory that the Pro12 teams have been harmed by the high number of players at the tournament. But then we see Saracens (16) and Toulon (14) also had a significant representation so perhaps this isn’t explaining all of the story.
Secondly, Ireland and to a lesser extent Wales have more of a Union based model which often means the national team takes precedence over the regional/provincial teams, particularly in a world cup year.
What isn’t in doubt is that there is more money coming in to the club game, particularly in France and England, driven by wealthy benefactors and lucrative TV deals. There are two important implications of this shift
The shift in power from country to club
The big increase in wages are coming at the club level in Europe, not at international level. The likes of Toulon’s Boudjallal are paying big bucks and when you pay big bucks you expect to be able to control and dictate when and where your players play. This is starting to lead to conflict between players (and their associated clubs) and the national teams and their associated unions.
The higher the wage, the greater the power of the clubs and the faster the power will shift from unions to clubs.
Every rugby player wants to represent his nation but when lucrative salaries are on offer at the club level, the test area seems less appealing. Players will find it hard to balance the twin pulls of their nation with their primary employer and may be forced to choose one over the other. We already see players in football retiring early from international duty to concentrate on their domestic careers; this is likely to become more prevalent in rugby.
This shift in power could potentially impact the international game and diminish what should be the pinnacle of the sport. Nations that rely heavily on financing via the test game will be those most at risk from a decline in test rugby.
Rugby will decline in some nations
As the Anglo-French hegemony takes root there will be serious consequences for the Pro12 nations and their respective clubs. Who wants to watch their team enter a competition where they have little or no chance of success?
A prolonged period where the Pro12 teams are uncompetitive in Europe will undoubtedly lead to dwindling interest which will translate through to the finance available for each team. To halt the slide the Pro12 teams will either need a wealthy benefactor or access to the big markets (and commensurate TV deals) of the big French and English clubs. Both of these routes seem unlikely at the moment.
The Unions (particularly in Ireland and Wales) may need to further concentrate resources in fewer teams to try and stay competitive at the European level. This could feasibly see funding pulled from the weaker teams in each nation and those teams will return to a semi-professional or even amateur status. This trend will probably continue as the gap between the Anglo-French axis and the Pro12 continues until the professional game in the Pro12 nations dies.
How to halt the slide?
As the power shifts from unions to clubs the ability of the unions to halt the decline and to provide a more level playing field will also decline. It is in the best interests of the RFU, FFR and World Rugby to see a vibrant test arena and as many nations and clubs playing as possible but these objectives do not fit with the desires of the wealthy Anglo-French clubs.
The Unions won’t be in a position to help so the onus shifts to the clubs’ ability to find new sources of funding. This isn’t going to be easy in the absence of being included in the English or French TV deals, so a slow decline in competitiveness of the Pro12 teams seems the most likely outcome.
*By “clubs” we means clubs, regions, provinces and all combinations of private and union ownership in Europe!
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