The Guinness Pro12 returns this weekend after a month out of action, and with it comes the annual questions about the wisdom of playing competitive league games right in the middle of the Six Nations.
Between now and the end of the Northern Hemisphere’s premier international competition, Cardiff Blues will play four Pro12 games, two on weekends when Wales are playing and two on rest weekends.
So what does this mean for the league of the Celtic Nations? Well in my opinion it’s not an exaggeration to say that clashing with the international calendar completely devalues the domestic competition, creating games between second, or even third, string sides, as well as seeing decreased attendances and unfair results.
Teams like Ospreys, Glasgow, Leinster and Munster lose a significant number of players to their respective national sides, while the Italian sides are decimated during each international window. Scarlets, Edinburgh and Ulster also lose key men, while Newport and Connacht often find themselves with an unfair advantage having provided few players to the Six Nations.
On top of that the league ends up with games, like Friday’s battle for fourth place between Scarlets and Glasgow, or next week’s top two clash between Ospreys and Munster, which should be huge showpieces, but will instead be taken down to reserve team level with considerably less fans than there may have been on a Saturday afternoon in December, or April.
Of course the English Aviva Premiership also continues with play during the Six Nations, but with budgets vastly different and the vast majority of players eligible for only England, any problems they face are on a minimal scale in comparison to that of the already struggling Pro12.
With World Rugby now taking steps to introduce a global calendar for rugby, the issue of club leagues clashing with international tournaments may become a thing of the past in the not-so-distant future, but while we wait for that day to come we must play what’s in front of us, and for Cardiff that coughs up a unique opportunity.
It may well seem hypocritical, having just complained about the Six Nations causing unusual results to appear in the Pro12, to say that the Blues can really kick on over the next few weeks, but when current league form is just two wins from nine, you understand why those of us in the Welsh capital will take points however they come.
A mixture of those poor performances and some serious injuries mean that Rob Howley selected just four players from the Arms Park to represent Wales, in Kris Dacey, Scott Andrews, Sam Warburton and Alex Cuthbert, while USA’s Cam Dolan takes the total number missing to five as the 12 Wales U20 representatives can be released by the WRU for senior rugby action.
As such the likes of Rhys Gill, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, Tomos Williams, Lloyd Williams, Gareth Anscombe, Cory Allen and Matthew Morgan, all of whom have represented Wales in the last two years, are available for Cardiff Blues selection, while Blaine Scully has been released by USA, and Rey Lee-Lo has no Samoa fixtures.
That’s 10 frontline senior players that Danny Wilson can call on, at a time when upcoming opponents Munster and Treviso are losing that amount to Ireland and Italy, respectively.
The league table shows Cardiff as six points off the all important sixth place in the Pro12, whilst giving up a game in hand. However, with Ulster being the team occupying the spot currently, and them being a side that is weakened by Ireland call-ups, if we can put some results together then there is a chance to bridge that gap.
Connacht, Treviso and Munster arriving at the Arms Park, as well as a trip to Edinburgh, are all winnable games with our strength retained and those opponents weakened to differing extents, giving a surprise opportunity to get the season back on track after an unbeaten opening month of the season.
Danny Wilson himself says it best, “It’s the start of a four game block that has the capability of defining our season.We have three games at home and one away, and three of the teams are below us in the league.”
It’s at a crucial point of our 2016/17 campaign now where one loss can literally be the difference between the success of sixth and the obscurity of seventh. There is confidence to be taken from qualifying for a Challenge Cup quarter-final though, as well as welcoming back a number of players from injury.
There is plenty of work to do to ensure the Pro12 reaches it’s full potential, Six Nations scheduling being one of those things. In Cardiff, however, just for one season, we’ll stay a bit quiet about that and hope to use it to our advantage, just don’t tell anyone!