It's hard not to sympathise with sporting organisations and governing bodies right now. We are over a year into crowds being banned from stadiums and, at least in Ireland, there's no end in sight. The financial situation of running games without such a large chunk of income makes things nearly impossible. For rugby, it's especially, having to cater for a centralised, home based professional game. The IRFU were put in the very unfortunate position of having to lay off 20 non-playing staff members earlier this month.
While the continuation of sport since last Autumn has been commendable and even remarkable, some of the compromises have not exactly got the blood pumping. Among Ireland's top sports, rugby again may have suffered the most from this malaise.
The Six Nations played off with just a couple of minor hitches (a postponed game might not have been regarded as minor in 2019, but in 2021, it's the best we could have asked for.) but every other competition has suffered badly, due to the inherent cross border activity that top level rugby needs.
In November, we were happy for international rugby to return and for the 2020 Six Nations to be completed, but the Autumn Nations Cup was the damp squib we would have predicted. The games (Ireland beat Wales, Scotland, and Georgia, losing to England) felt like World Cup warm-ups without the light of a World Cup at the end of the tunnel.
At club level too, it's been a struggle.
The Heineken Champions Cup was revamped with a complicated system to shorten the competition, but even this was abandoned before the Six Nations when two rounds of fixtures had to be cancelled. Following the international window, we reverted to a last 16 knockout competition, using the results of the games already played to determine who qualified. Thankfully, they have reached the semi-final stage without any further disruptions.
No competition has been affected more than the Pro14 though.
A shortened season was completed with "Pro14" existing as nothing but a brand name. Folded South African clubs were never going to make the trip north, so instead it was a competition for the 12 European based teams. From the outset, the idea that the winners of the two groups would go straight into a final seemed to be problematic. Stephen Ferris told Balls just last week there's still a lot of hard feeling in Ulster about this, given their performances in the same group as Leinster arguably outshone Munster's, who made the final.
We were told though late in the year that the shortened season was for a reason. In an optimistic move, the Pro14 made a deal with four South African Super Rugby teams who'd been excluded from their usual competition by Australia and New Zealand. The SARU openly admitted playing in Europe was not their first choice. The Rainbow Cup was announced just before Christmas, as a second (third?) wave of Covid was rampant worldwide, and a South African variant of the virus was spreading to Europe.
With spring afoot, vaccines in the air, and crowds back in the stadiums, the Rainbow Cup would be a brilliant, vibrant way to end the rugby season, and end the entire sporting nightmare of Covid. Unfortunately, the optimism was not shared by too many. As the weeks went on, it became increasingly clear that there would be no crowds in stadiums, and eventually, it even became clear the South African teams would not be traveling to Europe. Eventually, just THIS WEEK, this was confirmed.
Instead of pointlessly playing a Rainbow Cup nobody wants, why not just declare the Pro14 final result void and play what's left of the league out as originally planned?
It's not like Leinster seemed particularly bothered about winning it anyway. 🤷♂️
— Josh Gardner (@joshgardner) April 21, 2021
And so now, we've two Rainbow Cups. North and South. In Ireland, it means another Pro 14, almost. And it means more interpros. Tonight, Ulster host Connacht tonight in Belfast. Tomorrow, it's Munster and Leinster again.
15 years after the two met in a famous European semi-final, now they meet for the fifth time since last August. Leinster have won the previous four, the last six in total, 10 of the last 11, and 13 of the last 15. Tomorrow, they put out a weakened team against their biggest rivals with the bigger carrot of the Heineken Cup semi final ahead.
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) April 23, 2021
It's just four weeks since the two met in the Pro14 final. It was a tough beat for Munster. It's that game that Munster will take into the summer and into pre-season next year. Whatever happens tomorrow won't change that. It's a matchup players, coaches, and fans didn't need until next season. Ireland's greatest domestic rugby fixture will renew tomorrow night in a competition with no tradition and, as of now, no value. The most interesting thing on show will be the experimental rules.
It's not clear if Irish rugby fans have the stomach for The Rainbow Cup, North.