Sunday 22 April 2018

Comment - PRO12 must heed warnings of Super Rugby as it takes provinces into uncharted waters

Tadhg Beirne celebrates Scarlets’ win in this year’s Guinness PRO12 final. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tadhg Beirne celebrates Scarlets’ win in this year’s Guinness PRO12 final. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

We're not in the Celtic League anymore, that's for sure.

Next season's Guinness PRO12 - or PRO14 as we can assume it will be called - looks set to take the Irish provinces into unchartered territory in a desperate attempt to grow revenues and to keep pace with the big leagues in England and France while trying to ensure that the best players are present on a more frequent basis.

Logistically, the move to include teams from Port Elizabeth and Bloemfontein in a division populated by regions, clubs and provinces from Scotland, Wales, Italy and Ireland seems nonsensical but wait until two North American franchises are added into the mix, which is all part of chief executive Martin Anayi's grand vision for the much-maligned competition.

The PRO12 are still not in a position to confirm the BBC reports of agreement on the expansion and, as such, much of the detail has yet to emerge about how the league proposes to proceed during the African summer, while the teams involved will have to factor in the long-haul travel and altitude into their plans and budgets.

The addition of two South African teams is expected to increase the tournament's revenue by at least 50pc which, while keeping it well below the rival leagues, is an improvement.

Given travelling to Italy for a league game can cost provinces around €60,000 as it stands, the minimum three-flights it takes to get from Dublin to either city is going to add to the logistical headaches.

The desired result is a higher-quality competition with better teams operating with their stars on the pitch.

By changing the format to two conferences of seven, there is scope to avoid clashes with the internationals and fewer games should see less team-sheets shorn of internationals.

Just how keen the Joe Schmidt and David Nucifora will be to see their centrally contracted stars heading off on a 35-hour round trip to play a game in difficult conditions remains to be seen.

Those running the PRO12 must beware the harsh lessons of Super Rugby expansion.

Once the leading light in club rugby competitions, it is a bloated version of its former self - spread over continents and time-zones with a format that is too confusing for fans to follow.

Interest levels have dropped and gates have dipped accordingly, meaning the competition is scaling back - a move the PRO12 is seizing upon to help its own expansion ambitions.

The South African franchises have struggled badly and the PRO12 is getting the worst of the lot. The Cheetahs of Bloemfontein have struggled to compete with their bigger rivals on the Highveld, the Bulls and the Lions.

The Southern Kings never got going despite their excellent facility in Port Elizabeth, the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, which hosted Ireland's third Test against the Springboks last summer. Both teams boast big stadiums, but they rarely come close to filling them.

And yet, the move could come as a general re-alignment of the global game as the 2020 shift in calendar looms into view.

Given it sits in a similar time-zone to Europe, and that so many South Africans are based in the Northern Hemisphere, there have long been rumblings that they would prefer to participate in the competitions on this side of the hemisphere.

For all that Galway is a long way from Bloemfontein, getting to Dunedin is not much better and the Cheetahs chief executive Harold Verster recently spoke about how joining the PRO12 would ease their travel woes.

The PRO12 is not a competition cherished by many, so tampering with it won't cause too many tears.

Too many of the games are uncompetitive, too many of the teams are shorn of their stars, the clashes with international windows mean that long stretches of the season go by under the radar. And while the run-in has delivered in recent years it's not enough to sustain interest and attract television revenue.

How will the addition of two struggling South African teams help?

Well, the South African broadcaster SuperSport will be keen to come on board to expand their offering during the off-season; while the SARU will have to back the two teams financially if they are to succeed.

The league are set to ring-fence the provincial and regional derbies with all signs pointing to the status quo remaining even though the Irish provinces are set to operate in different conferences next season.

This is likely to be the start of a move towards a global league. Anayi is eyeing up America, while Georgia may also be on his mind.

Last week, IRFU chief Philip Browne said the PRO12 must be brave or risk irrelevance and the organisers are certainly taking a risky move. Agreeing it is one thing, making it work is a whole new ball-game.

Irish Independent

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