'Pro12 had a magnificent finale at end of an excellent season'

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Connacht defeated Leinster at Murrayfield to claim their first Pro12 title

The Connacht story has been told many times, but it never gets old.

How could it when so many new elements were added to the narrative in the countdown to Murrayfield on Saturday?

This is the second year in a row that the Pro12 has delivered a Cinderella story. First Glasgow Warriors and now Connacht as champions. In there somewhere is Edinburgh - the ugly sister.

Mark Dodson, Scottish Rugby's chief executive, is not known for a touchy-feely approach to business, so Alan Solomons, the Edinburgh coach, can count himself deeply fortunate to be still in his job.

When the heat came on, Edinburgh vanished from view. No top-four slot, which was the target. No top-six, which was the minimum requirement.

Solomons has become something of an excuse-machine. He's prolific. He gets one more chance next season to take this thing forward. Nobody, bar Dodson, will be hanging their hat on him.

Glasgow lose the title and a totem

Glasgow's season flattered to deceive. They thought they'd kick-on in Europe but didn't. Many of us thought that they'd defend their Pro12 title, but that didn't happen either. They remain a thrilling team at their best and have a coach that will have learned the lessons.

Gregor Townsend continued the reshaping of his squad on Tuesday with the capture of Fijian international scrum-half, Nemia Kenatale, as replacement for the now retired Mike Blair.

Glasgow Warriors
Glasgow's Pro12 title defence was ended at the semi-final stage by eventual champions Connacht

So, at Scotstoun next season, that's Kenatale for Blair, Rory Clegg for the departing Duncan Weir, Leonardo Sarto, the Italian wing, for the southern-hemisphere bound Taqele Naiyaravaro, Jarred Firth, the Counties Manukau tighthead for the released Mike Cusack, and Corey Flynn, the veteran New Zealand hooker, for Kevin Bryce, who's off to Edinburgh.

Quite who's going to replace Leone Nakarawa is anybody's guess. That's presuming he's replaceable - by a human as opposed to something that Steven Spielberg might come up with in a CGI lab. Even then, you'd take Nakarawa.

The totemic Fijian has entered the warm embrace of Racing 92 with a pay packet sufficiently large as to choke an elephant.

Preparing for next season

Get used to the cherry-picking from France. It's going to happen a lot in the coming years. When a French club - or, for that matter, Bath in their poaching of Dave Denton from Edinburgh - can think nothing of shelling-out six figures to get a player out of a contract then the game has changed.

Townsend will spend the summer plotting for the coming season knowing that whatever he comes up with, Glasgow without Nakarawa is a diminished force.

Everybody - Glasgow particularly - have been chastened by the rise of Connacht. Leinster's way of dealing with the upstarts from the west of Ireland is to take one of their best players - Robbie Henshaw.

Ulster have got involved too, signing Connacht prop Rodney Ah You.

Ulster mean business. They have the outstanding Charles Piutau coming in at full-back from Wasps and would have had the terrific Springbok, Marcell Coetzee, as well had he not suffered an injury that has put him out of the game for a long spell.

Alan Solomons
Alan Solomons led Edinburgh to a disappointing ninth place finish in the Pro12

Scarlets have recruited Jonathan Davies and Rhys Patchell. Munster have changed the coaching team and now have the formidable Rassie Erasmus running the show.

This season brought the biggest ever crowd at a Pro12 day, 68,262 people watching Judgement Day in Wales. We had the biggest ever crowd at an Edinburgh versus Glasgow match also - 23,642.

We not only had the race for the top four, but the top six. Once upon a time, when they had their sights set on Europe's biggest prize, the Pro12 meant little to Munster, but the final weeks of the league season were huge for the double Heineken Cup champions. They were staring down the barrel of Champions Cup elimination, a prospect so ghastly that it lent a drama - and a horror - to their run-in that was captivating.

More than 1.1m people watched Pro12 games this season with an average of 8,480 per game. That's a decrease of 106 fans per match, but in World Cup year, when so many box office names were missing, it's not a bad return.

The equivalent for the previous World Cup season - 2011-12 - was 7,721 per game. The first season of the Pro12 - 2010-11- had an average of 7,553 per game.

These numbers won't take the eye out of your head with their brilliance, but they show that the competition is capturing the imagination more than it has done before. Meritocracy has upped the ante. So has the new financial reality of one-time kingpins.

Celtic nations left trailing

The Irish teams - six European Cups between them since 1999 - can no longer touch the monied outfits of France and England. The gap has become a chasm.

The Pro12 matters more to them now than it has ever done before because season by season it's becoming their only real shot at silverware.

So much about the competition is good and yet the Pro12 remains a small fry in the grand scheme of things.

Leone Nakarawa
Glasgow lock Leone Nakarawa has been lured to France by Racing 92

French club rugby is largely muck. War of attrition follows war of attrition. Some of the biggest names in the world game arrive and the product still remains borderline unwatchable.

For the outsider, that is. For the French, it's tribal and magnificent; the beginning, the end and the in-between of their rugby dreams. Europe? It's an added bonus if it comes. The league stuff is what it's about and, crucially, where the money's at.

The French are already feasting on television revenues that make Pro 12 executives salivate, but those numbers are going to get even greater come 2019.

French clubs are going to trouser £305m in the four years from 2019. That's £76m per season. The English Premiership clubs are currently hoovering up £189m over four years - more than £46m per season. The Pro 12 equivalent is around £12m.

Selling the Pro12 product

The fact remains, though, that the Pro12 offers up some terrific rugby, some outstanding stories and some great champions. There were 107 players from the Pro12 at the World Cup - more than any other league in the northern hemisphere.

Therein lies one of the problems of the competition, though. Yes, there's not nearly enough money and that's not looking like it's going to change any time soon. And it's never going to change unless the Pro12 helps itself.

On average about seven rounds of the Pro12 are played during Test match windows. That's seven matches, minimum, when the elite players are not on view.

It's what Martin Anayi, the managing director of the Pro12, calls the competition's greatest strength being turned into its greatest weakness.

"We have more international players than any other competition but we play games in international windows," he said recently. "It's self-defeating."

Connacht fans
34,500 fans attended the Pro12 final between Connacht and Leinster at Murrayfield

It is. Crowds plummet an estimated 45% on those weekends. The Pro12 allows itself to look like a lesser event, a kind of development league where the top boys don't always play. If you're going looking for more money from television companies then it doesn't help when your biggest marketing tools - your marquee players - are missing for vast chunks of the season.

The Pro12 had a magnificent finale at the end of an excellent season with many narratives. It has great strengths, big weaknesses and serious challenges.

The loss of the Nakarawas diminishes it, but that fight against French loot cannot be won.

It would be nice to see some kind of Pro12 vision all the same. The competition deserves it.