September 19, 2014
2 rounds down, 20 to go. It's still very early into the new season and it's far too early to be jumping the gun on whether the Pro12 as a competition has improved or not. Fixtures have been kind to some and less so to others. That hasn't stopped some from making fairly grand claims already though. Have we really seen any changes yet or is it just more of the same from last year?
After the opening weekend an article appeared in WalesOnline titled "The hype was justified and Welsh teams are on the up". The hype was that of an invigorated competition with the inclusion of meritocracy and Sky Sports coverage adding to the leagues image. Two Welsh sides recorded victories, one drew in an exciting game at home and one lost narrowly away. That weekend there were few real drubbings suggesting that there were few easy games in the league, something that the PRL had claimed of the Aviva Premiership in the European row. That same weekend there were a few easy games in that competition, but anyway....
There was huge positivity around the league. A fresh start, a new beginning or what have you. In some quarters at least. Then week 2 seemed to burst a few bubbles. Scarlets and Cardiff both lost, while Ospreys beat Dragons. It was described as a jolt of reality. But what exactly is "reality" in this case? How did the opening weekends go this year compared to last? And were any of the results in any way unexpected?
SO HOW DO THE NUMBERS STACK UP?
Here we have a table of the opening rounds this season and their corresponding games last season. About the only pattern that has emerged from the 2 rounds is that Ulster have started the season better. Everyone elses fortunes have been mixed or no different. But looking closer at round 1 in both seasons (because it was after round 1 some of these grand claims had been made) and there isn't much to back up claims of improving Welsh fortunes. After all I'd hardly consider Cardiff beating Zebre to be a genuinely big result.
This season the Welsh opened by beating the 2 Italian teams; whipping boys Zebre and a Treviso side gutted of all their best talent. And even at that Ospreys didn't do a number on Treviso the same way they did last season. Scarlets drew a game that they managed to win last season and Dragons ended up with an almost identical score in the Sportsground. Leinster have a habit of losing on the opening day so their narrow loss to Glasgow doesn't tell us anything really. The only other result of note is the Munster loss to Edinburgh in Thomond Park.
In round 2 a clearer picture starts to emerge. Ulster have gotten better, Treviso have understandably regressed and the difference between Cardiff and Glasgow has increased in Glasgow's favour. Edinburgh went through a decent patch last season but overall were poor and their game against Connacht would suggest they have picked up where they left off. Other than that it would appear that relatively little has changed.
If you look at attendances there is an increase in the Welsh regions, but they are still a long way off the Irish provinces attendances. The only major variances are in the Munster - Edinburgh game which was in Musgrave Park last year, hence the increased attendance this year, and the the Dragons - Ospreys game which was held in the Millennium Stadium for the Welsh double header last season, hence the large drop in numbers.
So was the hype justified? It seems too early to really tell, but initial signs are that not a huge amount has changed. The same sides that you would have fancied at the start of last season (Leinster, Ulster and Glasgow) are the same sides that look most likely to challenge this season. Up until last season I was a huge advocate of the league. It had been improving year on year and in the final in 2012 we really did have an event worthy of a top class competition. But last season was a serious let-down with a number of teams falling away badly. The money in France has tempted so many of the leagues great players away that it was never going to live up to previous seasons. Hopefully this season will see an improvement, but whether it will or not remains to be seen.
Are the Welsh Regions really on the up? It doesn't look like it in all honesty. Ospreys top the table and have 2 from 2, but those wins were against a poor Treviso side and their regional rivals Dragons. Neither will have provided the sternest of tests for Tandy's men who didn't put either side away in the same manner they did last season. Scarlets don't appear to have improved either despite an exciting game against Ulster. That was driven as much by two poor defenses as anything. Cardiff are probably in a similar place to last year, as are Dragons. Judging by attendances there is some increased interest in Wales which is good, but unless the Regions start producing the results it's hard to see this lasting.
With any luck the deal that the WRU and the Regions managed to reach at the 11th hour last month will provide some much needed stability in the game as well as ensuring that they hold on to as many of their top players as possible from here on in, because outside of the three big Irish provinces Glasgow are the only real contenders in the league and that needs to change badly. This competition is our bread and butter. It needs to be taken seriously by all involved to ensure it can become as exciting and competitive as possible.