Tuesday 20 March 2018

Brendan Fanning: A whole new world awaits the PRO14

Players at the Guinness PRO14 season launch at the Aviva Stadium Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Players at the Guinness PRO14 season launch at the Aviva Stadium Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It took us a long time to get over the fact that in 2001 the Celtic League was launched in a prefabricated cabin in Donnybrook. True, they were simpler times, but when Syd Millar stood up and announced the cross-border competition that was around the corner we didn't feel we were about to witness something special.

In the way that the Heineken Cup had filled a gap for our provinces a matter of months after the game went professional, the Celtic League plugged a lot of holes on the other Saturdays. If you think of it, the busier competition should have been more foreground than background, but it was not even the bread and butter. More like stir-about.

We thought of Syd and Donnybrook last week as the Pro12 became the Pro14. We had moved around the corner to a fancier venue and a gig with a lot more bells and whistles than in 2001. And it had a sponsor. When Millar was asked back then about a few bob to run the whole thing he explained that, while there had been lots of interest in what was a hastily-arranged competition, they reckoned they'd let it run a bit first. Right.

It jogged along for five seasons before Magners arrived. Then Rabo. And when we kick off next weekend Guinness will be four years funding it with another two to follow in what is an extended deal.

You'd imagine the lads in Diageo HQ are on tenterhooks about what happens next. When you are managing a global brand you don't hitch your wagon to the nearest vehicle and just see where it takes you. "Due diligence" was a phrase used regularly last week by Pro14 chief executive Martin Anayi, and if we were in the pint-pulling business we'd have been all over him like a rash as he did his research on the competition's latest expansion.

The first, in 2010, to accommodate two clubs from Italy, has been a failure. That move was partly about boosting Italy at the Six Nations table, and partly about getting a toe in the door of that country's sports market. Unfortunately, the rugby portion of that pie is what's left on the table when everything is cleared away. As for the former, the results speak for themselves.

So it's worth bearing in mind that neither the Cheetahs nor Kings are being invited to pull up a chair because of their good looks. Rather because they are available. More than that they are gagging for a shift having been dumped by Super Rugby. And of course they are prepared to pay their way.

That figure is understood to be circa €540k for each of the existing teams. With Pro14 picking up the tab for the trips to Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth - excluding wild excesses on hotel mini bars - this is a windfall.

"It's a pretty big difference," Pro14 CEO Martin Anayi says of the new departure. "It is also phase one of the plan. It's in a year in fact where they (the existing shareholders) weren't expecting more income because it's the last year of our tv deal and the first year of the next one, so hopefully it's a welcome boost to the coffers.

"But it's essential for all the teams for different reasons: it allows us to remain competitive in a really competitive marketplace. Player costs/inflation are going through the roof. To keep up with that you've got to do pretty extraordinary things sometimes. And this step of expanding the tournament to South Africa is a pretty extraordinary step to take. We've done it for the right reasons."

From the moment he parked himself in the Pro12 - first in the managing director's chair in 2015 - Anayi's mission has been to get the competition onto a bigger and better footing. Living in the shadow of England's Premiership and France's Top 14 means there is constant pressure to run to keep up.

He is alive to anything that might raise the profile or boost the bank balance by breaking into a new market. So when the Pro14 becomes the Pro15 in a year or two it will involve a North American outfit. Slotting that piece into the jigsaw will be a whole lot easier if the Cheetahs and the Kings look like they belong. And that will be a battle.

Much has been made of the one-/two-hour time difference between South Africa and Europe to illustrate how we suit that country far better than their old mates in Super Rugby. Indeed listening last week to Cheetahs' captain Neill Jordaan talk about the overnight flight up from the southern hemisphere it sounded like the ideal way to unwind from a stressful day - and arrive fresh as a daisy. With no direct flights between Ireland and South Africa, it's going to involve another leg somewhere along the line, which might take the edge off your blissful trip. Never mind - Neill is wide-eyed and buzzing.

"Travelling here the guys are very excited to see the northern side of the world," he says. "Especially you guys have a beautiful country - or the four countries, all very beautiful, so sightseeing's going to be nice. Playing against world-class teams is going to be nice and experiencing everything is just going to be amazing. So yeah it's going to be exciting seeing how it goes here and how it's going to be when they travel to us."

The fixture list in February will bring the Cheetahs to Cardiff. Then Glasgow. Then Swansea. If that little tour doesn't bring chilling to a whole new level then they will be in the Tom Crean class of human endurance, for by then they will have been active to some degree for 15 months, having started pre-season for Super Rugby last November. Even allowing for set-down periods in that schedule it's a very long haul.

If they stand up to it, and produce competitive performances on that rocky road, then Martin Anayi will be doing cartwheels down Simmonscourt Road. If, however, we are looking at gruesome scorelines then he will be talking about teething problems and settling-in periods and praying to his maker for a change in fortune.

Either side of that bleak winter period we will have Leinster in South Africa - next month - for their double date, with Munster making their trip in April. If you were in the business of building the Pro14 brand then you'd want competitive, well-attended games where the South Africans come out on top.

And that's the central issue in this ambitious new development. Putting it all in place so fast has been an achievement, but if the rugby is not credible then the numbers will never add up, and the sponsors will wonder why they are joined at the hip to something that's creaking. If the rugby is good, however, then we are in a whole new world. In which case what started out in a temporary dwelling, low-key and cashless, will have a feel of permanency and pride about it.

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