THE Guinness PRO14 tournament organisers are looking at the possibility of introducing a development competition to sit below the main league, but how this innovation will look and the timescale for its introduction is not yet clear.
An article in The Times newspaper on Tuesday discussing the failings of the English Aviva Premiership’s A League, stated that:
“Just when it seems that England’s youngsters are falling behind, the Celts are about to take another step forward. They too realise that another development level is required so a Pro14 under-23 competition will begin next season. Good idea.”
No further details were given.
A spokesman for the PRO14 confirmed this afternoon [Wednesday] that:
“We are always looking at ways to improve the development and progress of players in the Guinness PRO14 and into our representative teams. We have a good track record of doing that with 295 international players appearing during the 2016-17 season, including 26 players called up to the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand. A development competition is one idea that has been discussed but we are at the early stages in the process.”
Super 6 and cross-border competition
The Scottish clubs currently bidding to take on Super 6 franchises will be anxious to know just what this ‘development competition’ might look like, and specifically how it will affect their position in the performance hierarchy.
Mark Dodson, the chief executive of the Scottish Rugby Union, stated that cross-border competition was a key strand of his Super 6 proposal when he launched the scheme last August.
It was initially assumed that a return of Scottish sides to the British and Irish Cup for the first time since 2014 would be engineered, but the withdrawal of English Championship clubs last November signalled the death-knell for this largely unloved competition and it will cease to exist after the end of the current campaign.
Meanwhile, a comprehensive ‘Competition Review’ into the structure of Welsh rugby concluded last month with the decision to introduce regional under-23 sides as a means of creating a more seamless development pathway into the professional game, and a number of franchise hopefuls expect these new sides to provide the cross-border element to the Super 6 fixture list.
Irish eye provincial solution
However, Ireland’s provinces are also keen to create a new competition involving Welsh and Scottish franchises, and they seem to have a slightly more comprehensive vision.
Peter O’Reilly, explained in the Irish edition of The Sunday Times last November, that:
“A 10-team home and away structure has been mooted. The cost of involving Italian or South African clubs to form a shadow Pro14 looks prohibitive.”
“The more ambitious of Ireland’s Ulster Bank League clubs hope that the failure of the B&I might open the possibility of strengthening their top division through the infusion of players from the academies. But Leinster, for one, are hopeful that a new model can emerge in the shadow of the Pro14.”
The thorny issue of pro player release
In fairness to Dodson, he stated at last August’s SRU AGM that full-time professionals will not play in Super 6. He explained that fringe professional and academy players will get game time instead for Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors ‘A’ teams, playing five or six games each per year (probably against English Premiership ‘A’ squads and perhaps Welsh franchises). This shadow PRO14 competition looks like an extension of that vision.
Up until now, the issue of pro player release was regarded as one of several key points on which Dodson was willing to compromise as part of negotiations with franchising clubs, but that clearly isn’t going to happen if a new league is set up to sit between Super 6 and the PRO14.
A spokesman for the Scottish Rugby Union confirmed that the governing body is contributing to on-going discussions on this issue.
The speed with which the PRO12 recalibrated itself to become the PRO14 with the introduction of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings last summer indicates that it is entirely feasible that this new back-up league can be in place by the start of next season.