We Need to Talk About: How a Pro 14 might work

There are quite a few alternatives for how the Pro 12 can be structured when, as now seems almost certain, 2 South African sides join for the start of the 2017/18 season. With a straight 14 team league leading to either a 13 (too few) or 26 (too many) game regular season*, that probably means a conference system is incoming – so here’s OTOTM’s look at the most likely outcomes.

The first question will be how to place the sides into the 2 conferences of 7. Doing this geographically¬†makes some sense to maximise those local rivalries but there’s a distinct possibility of making the competitiveness of each group very lopsided. Placing the 2 Italian sides together would create a particular imbalance. Splitting them and putting the 2 South African teams into one group would unfairly burden either the Irish or Welsh sides with extra travel and associated costs plus the toll on players.

Dividing each country’s sides between the pools and taking into account a basic seeding to try and balance the strengths of the 2 conferences based on where they finished last season would look something like this:

CONFERENCE 1
Scarlets (WAL 1)
Dragons (WAL 4)
Leinster (IRE 2)
Ulster (IRE 3)
Edinburgh (SCO 2)
Treviso (ITA 1)
Kings
CONFERENCE 2
Munster (IRE 1)
Connacht (IRE 4)
Ospreys (WAL 2)
Cardiff Blues (WAL 3)
Glasgow (SCO 1)
Zebre (ITA 2)
Cheetahs

The simplest system would see the teams in each conference play each other home and away and then play each of the sides in the other conference once. That would give 19 fixtures each but with some sides having 9 home matches and the others 10. That can be remedied by playing an extra round of derby matches with the teams that were short of a home game hosting their rivals.

Scenario 1

Simple conference system

  • Home and away matches v own conference (12 in total)
  • One match v each team in other conference (7)
  • 19 matches total. 9 or 10 at home

Scenario 2

Add-on derby match to even out schedule

  • Home and away matches v own conference (12 in total)
  • One match v each team in other conference (7)
  • One additional derby match v an own country team (1)
  • 20 matches total. 10 at home

Scenario 3

Ensure 11 home matches

  • Home and away matches v own conference (12 in total)
  • Home and away matches v 3 teams in other conference with focus on derbies (eg Scarlets play H & A against Ospreys and Cardiff Blues plus one other Conference 2 team; Munster still get to play H & A matches with Leinster and Ulster etc.) (6)
  • One match v 4 remaining teams in other conference (4)
  • 22 matches total. 11 at home

Scenario 3 really arises as a possibility due to the fact that almost every Pro 12 team has already sold season tickets for 2017/18 and have done so on the basis of 11 home league fixtures. This system would retain a 22 fixture season and hopefully ensure no fan-based mutiny about home matches. The disadvantage is no reduction in games means no opportunity to lessen the number of fixtures being played during Test windows – one of the original selling points of a conference system!


The elephant in the room here is that it looks like whatever structure is selected it may only be in place for a single campaign. From season 2018/19 onwards at least 1, possibly 2, American franchises will be incorporated into the league.

That could mean a Pro 16 where a traditional 2 conference structure would give 22 regular season fixtures and no reduction in the number of games played during Test windows.

Alternatively it could lead to a Pro 15 – and the only sensible structure for a league of 15 teams surely has to be 3 conferences of 5. Split geographically these would be hugely uneven in terms of strength. Splitting them across the nations would lead to a big reduction in local derbies.

Add in the Italian sides’ participation agreement running out in 2020 (or rumoured consolidation before that from 2 teams to a single franchise based in Rome, with the American side then able to take up that additional place) and it’s clear there will be a lot of very difficult decisions to be made for the Pro 12(ish) hierarchy over the next few years, with significant ramifications for professional rugby in at least 6 countries.


* There would also be the possibility of playing every team in the league once and then splitting into a top half and bottom half for a further 6 games. This would seem to undermine the playoffs though, making them an unnecessary add-on and is unlikely to be a realistic option.


Footnote:

There has been discussion in the Scottish press that there would be 3 derby matches for Glasgow and Edinburgh to compensate for the reduction in home games. For that to be the case the pools would need to be split geographically e.g.

Welsh/Scottish
Scarlets
Ospreys
Cardiff Blues
Dragons
Glasgow
Edinburgh
Kings
Irish/Italian
Munster
Leinster
Ulster
Connacht
Treviso
Zebre
Cheetahs

This would be similar to Scenario 1 above with home and away games within team’s own conferences; 1 game against each of the other sides in the other conference; with the additional match to balance the number of home and away fixtures being an Irish, Italian, ¬†Scottish, South African or Welsh derby.

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