Browne: PRO12 must expand to stop it falling further behind
Although he refused to confirm the seemingly inevitable arrival of South African franchises Southern Kings and Cheetahs into the Guinness PRO12 from next season, IRFU chief executive Philip Browne said the competition has to expand if it is to keep pace with its rivals in England and France.
Although there are huge logistical challenges to be overcome with the inclusion of two more teams who are operating in a different hemisphere, at least half-a-day's travel away from the rest of the teams in a league that is not awash with money; the union chief said the opportunity out-weighs the draw-backs.
Both franchises have lost their Super Rugby status as that competition scales back and are preparing to be accepted into what was once the Celtic League from the beginning of next season, opening up a potentially lucrative new television market.
The expansion is not expected to end there, with clubs from North America and further afield in Europe in negotiations about joining in subsequent campaigns. A decision on the South Africans' entry could be confirmed at a meeting of the PRO12's board next week, with the league set to be split into two conferences of seven teams.
The South African teams would not automatically gain entry to the Champions Cup if they join the PRO12 as they would have to reach agreement with other EPCR stakeholders from the English Premiership (PRL) and the Top 14.
If it seems late in the day for making such drastic changes to the provinces' primary competition, Browne said it has always been the way of the league.
"The one thing I'll say about the Celtic League, and I've been involved since its inception in 2001, is that it's gone through various iterations and each iteration effectively happens at five to midnight; that is the nature of this particular beast," he said.
"Yes, there's all sorts of potential issues with going to North America, potential issues if South Africa emerged as a realistic option, but I think what you have to do is weigh up those potential issues with the risk of doing nothing.
"The risk of doing nothing with the PRO12 in the long-term is the greater risk.
"We have to have some sort of paradigm change, otherwise we'll keep doing the same thing, getting the same result and fall further behind Top 14 and PRL.
"One would hope that if we go to a new market, no matter what that market is, that it will have a positive impact on the revenue generated by PRO12 and on the distributions that are made to the unions and clubs."
The IRFU yesterday reported a deficit of €2.8m which came in under their initial projection of €4.7m. They have committed €1.5m to delivering next month's Women's World Cup and Brown said tickets for the knock-out stages in Belfast are progressing well.