Let’s not beat around the bush here; the Guinness Pro14 is not popular in Wales. It’s perhaps not always openly stated, but it’s the simple truth of the matter.
That could be seen as an odd statement to make as in one way it may appear popular to a degree. Despite the romanticised view of pre-regional club rugby in Wales, the facts are clear that Cardiff Blues, for example, enjoy a better average attendance now than Cardiff RFC did in many years leading up to 2003.
However, when push comes to shove that is very little love for the cross-border competition in our corner of the world. It’s just behind the M4 at Newport and English people coming into our pubs when it comes to the unpopularity stakes, except you can’t cut through the wetlands to avoid it or start speaking Welsh when it walks in.
Why is that? Well, from a Cardiff point of view, I think for many supporters over a certain age they have been brought up with another type of cross-border games, as the Blue and Blacks took on English sides every season since the club was formed in 1877/78.
Many Irish and some Scottish commentators on social media tend to mock a perceived Welsh obsession with England in club rugby terms, but with 140 years of rivalry built up as well as general cultural and economic ties between particularly the South Wales and West of England rugby heartlands, it’s understandable.
If Leinster, for example, were told that having played inter-provincial games against Ulster since 1875 they would now be no longer playing the Northern Irish side but taking on Benetton Treviso instead, then it’s fair to say that would not be a popular announcement.
On a personal level though that doesn’t apply to me. I was just eight when regional rugby was introduced so the Celtic League and then the Pro12/Pro14 is all I’ve known, yet among many people my age in the first generation of regional supporters the league is also not popular.
All of my friends who I started going with when we were in school no longer attend games but for big European games and Welsh derbies due to a general apathy towards what is on offer. They still support and keep up to date with the Cardiff Blues, but they are not inspired to regularly attend.
Kick-off times are an issue, both the slots they could be and the inconsistency of them, and they are just not interested in seeing a large quantity of the opposition teams. Edinburgh, Connacht, Zebre and the Southern Kings have no draw, especially on a Saturday night in November, or a Sunday afternoon in February, when no internationals will be available.
There is even an increasing indifference to the likes of Leinster and Munster coming to town, with the likelihood being they will be able to turn up with a second or even third string side and beat us due to the difference in funding.
For some time there was hope that the impending CVC investment would be a saviour for Welsh rugby, I wrote about it previously here, but circumstances changing mean that the outlook is somewhat different now.
Firstly, the Coronavirus pandemic means that the money, believed to be in the region of £30-35m for the Welsh Rugby Union, is likely to be spent on survival rather than improvements as was hoped, meaning we may not see any real benefit until rugby returns to normal and then CVC are able to raise commercial revenues.
And secondly, the introduction of the Federazione Italiana Rugby as shareholders in Celtic Rugby DAC, the organisers of the Pro14, mean that any hope of CVC attempting to bring their investments in the Pro14 and Gallagher Premiership together would likely be tougher if buying the Italians out is involved.
So while a British and Irish League is still what the majority of supporters hope for, it is perhaps less likely now so the focus should be, as the Pro14’s press release regarding the CVC investment states, pushing the league “towards its full potential”.
How do we do this? Well the kick-off times are a big thing. Sticking to just three across a weekend; Friday night, Saturday early afternoon and Saturday late afternoon, would be a big improvement, while the introduction of a global season cutting down club and country crossover would allow big internationals to play week-in, week-out improving the on-field quality and marketing potential of the league.
Perhaps the most radical change that could be considered is a salary cap though. Now I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of that today, but at the moment the likes of the Leinster, Munster, Ulster, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Scarlets are spending a good amount more money than Cardiff Blues, Ospreys, Connacht and Benetton, and considerably more than Dragons, Zebre, Cheetahs and Kings.
Putting in a cap of somewhere around the £6-7m mark with room for two marquee signings is likely to lead to a noticeable increase in competitiveness, following the example of the Gallagher Premiership where it is now a case of any one of a number of teams winning the league after Saracens have been caught cheating.
On a general level there has to be an attitude change in Wales if the Pro14 is going to shift it’s poor reputation, but now the league is retaining some of the CVC investment for itself that has to be spent on improving the competition in order to inspire the many people who doubt it.
If the Pro14 is here for the medium term beyond this Coronavirus pandemic and into a potentially brave new world of rugby then it has to be brave in order to thrive.