Former Ireland and Munster scrum-half Peter Stringer says there is “no doubt” the Pro14 needs to expand to include the South African Super Rugby franchises. The quality of the Pro14 has been under increasing scrutiny in recent weeks, with IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora stressing the need for more quality competition in the league during his recent annual address to the Irish rugby media.
Nucifora outlined that discussions around bringing the Bulls, Stormers, Lions and Sharks into an expanded ‘Pro16’ league were at “quite an advanced stage”.
His comments came shortly after Leinster head coach Leo Cullen admitted he was concerned the Pro14 wasn’t preparing his team properly for the sterner tests that lie ahead in the Heineken Champions Cup, which kicks off this weekend.
Leinster are unbeaten in the competition since April 2019 and have picked up bonus point wins in all seven of their Pro14 games this season, and the four Irish provinces have won 26 from a total of 28 games in the current campaign, with two defeats for Connacht the only blots in the copybook.
At the other end of the scale, Benetton have through the Autumn international window without a win to their name seven games into their season, while fellow Italians Zebre have lost seven from eight.
As a result teams like Leinster and Munster can often heavily rotate their squads between the Pro14 and Champions Cup. For example, Johnny Sexton played just three times in the Pro14 last season, while Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw made just four Pro14 appearances each.
And Stringer, who won two European cups with Munster, says the gulf in quality within the Pro14 has become a real issue.
“No doubt about it,” Stringer said when asked if would welcome the addition of the South African teams.
“I think when you see the likes of a Leinster third string team putting 40 or 50 points on a team like Zebre, you’d certainly welcome the South African teams, those quality sides. And I think that, and I’m using Leinster as an example because they have an ability to rotate their players, you want to get the balance right between the continuity of players playing week-in, week-out.
“You don’t want to change your team completely from one competition to another because it almost seems like you’re starting from scratch.
“Yes, you look at it from the other side, it gives guys an opportunity to play and you develop academy guys, and the overall picture is really good when you’ve got your internationals away. So there’s a fine balance between getting guys enough game time so they are physically prepared for these big games, but also giving younger guys an opportunity so they can step in.
“But there’s no doubt, the Pro14 (needs better competition), and that’s where we will see these teams coming into Europe, where they really stand in terms of coming up against French and English opposition, because at times some of the games in the Pro14 can be a bit one-sided.”
Stringer has also backed Johnny Sexton to keep playing at the highest level after the Ireland captain once again underlined his importance to Andy Farrell’s team during the Autumn Nations Cup.
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With Joey Carbery battling on-going injury issues, Sexton quite clearly remains Ireland’s first-choice out-half, and recently outlined his desire to keep playing through to the 2023 Rugby World Cup, by which stage he will be 38.
Last week Sexton, 35, named-checked Stringer as one of the players he takes inspiration from when it comes to career longevity. Stringer left Munster to prolong his player career after falling down the pecking order, and eventually retired at the age of 40.
“I’ve had a couple of conversations (with Johnny), yeah,” Stringer continued.
“Not recently, but over the last year or so. Obviously Johnny is playing at a top top level at his age. I’ve had brief conversations with him and he’s a guy who is ambitious. Obviously he wants to play for as long as he possibly can and to get the most out of his body. He’s had a couple of injuries and stuff, but we’ve had some chats certainly in terms of what I did in the latter part of my career.
“I think, I got to 35 and there was no pathway for me to continue playing for Ireland because I found myself fourth choice with Munster, and really at the time I was probably in a different position than Johnny is now.
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“The mentality is still the same, I still wanted to keep playing, went to the UK and kept playing for another five years, and really wanted to make the most of my career.
“I know Johnny is the same, so I’m sure we’ll continue to have those conversations because he’s someone who wants to keep playing at the highest level, he wants to make another World Cup, and the way things are going from an Irish perspective, he’s really, really important to Ireland.
“Yes there are a couple of guys on the fringes, there’s always a case that you need to have backup, but we haven’t seen it from the second choice guys in the last year or two. Billy Burns has stepped up and I thought he did well in the last couple of months, but Johnny is still the leader, he’s still the guy you rely on and I think he’s so crucial.
“I’m happy to chat to Johnny in terms of what I did, specifics I did around my game, but look, he’s committed. He has it mentally, so I’ve no doubt that he’ll be able to continue playing as long as the body holds up.”
Watch every single Heineken Champions Cup fixture live on BT Sport, starting with Northampton Saints v Bordeaux Begles Friday 11 December from 5pm on BT Sport 2
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