Expansion will hurt Pro14 in long run unless South Africans improve

Tournament turned down US franchise over gulf in class but current deal seems little better

Leinster’s 31-10 victory over the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth was not a good omen for the expanded Pro14. Photograph: Ryan Wilkisky/Inpho

Leinster’s 31-10 victory over the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth was not a good omen for the expanded Pro14. Photograph: Ryan Wilkisky/Inpho

 

“If we go there and they are not competitive you are not going to get anything commercially.”

Martin Anayi, August 2017.

The Guinness Pro14 chief executive was not referring to the South African subplot but major obstacles stalling expansion into North America.

“We are past negotiation,” said Anayi. “It can definitely happen. But US Rugby need to sort out their domestic situation before we can look at [expansion].”

The first professional US rugby league was launched in April 2016. It folded in January. Another version – Major League Rugby – is promised in 2018.

The English Premiership has already dipped its toe in the US market but only 6,271 showed up in Philadelphia to see Saracens beat Newcastle.

Anayi tried to explain how the Cheetahs and Southern Kings have a major advantage over the US franchise: “We will continue to look at expansion but expansion has to work in different areas; player welfare, the right time zone, the format has to work, the teams need to be competitive and it needs to work commercially. If any of those things aren’t present you shouldn’t expand.”

Clearly, some of the above are more important than others.

The Irish Times asked the Pro14 to tell us their overall strategic plan for this article. We asked how long the South African sides will be allowed drive down the standard of rugby before collective patience runs dry, because if they are not competitive you are not going to get anything commercially, right?

Tumbleweed.

The old Celtic League is not the only rugby shop under inspection this past week. Seems as if the entire sport is up in flames. Seán O’Brien unloaded two months of pent up frustration on the coaching reputations of Rob Howley and Warren Gatland. Meanwhile, the Springboks are staring into the abyss. Following their 57-0 thumping off the All Blacks, Rassie Erasmus appeared to speed up his homecoming by endorsing Dave Wessels as his replacement in Munster. All the while the best South African players can be found in Montpellier and Toulon.

And the exodus is only going to increase. French rugby president Bernarde Laporte is learning that the hard way.

Guinness Pro14 chief executive Martin Anayi: ‘Why can’t we think bigger? That is what it was always about – the Celtic nations should look outwards not inwards.’ Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
Guinness Pro14 chief executive Martin Anayi: ‘Why can’t we think bigger? That is what it was always about – the Celtic nations should look outwards not inwards.’ Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho

Anayi, again speaking in August, sought to soothe logical doubts about the hastily arranged summer expansion by stating the exiled Southern Kings and Cheetahs had been gifted much-needed stability so “players can be signed on multiyear contracts. They can keep players that come out of the schools systems, their club system on the Eastern Cape and the same for the Free State.”

We see evidence to the contrary. Montpellier, owned by Syrian billionaire Mohed Altrad, just planted a flag in Bloemfontein’s main feeder system. Grey College churns out Springboks. The secondary school has announced the Badawi Legacy Scholarship Programme where an anonymous “donor of the programme has secured a commitment from Montpellier Rugby Club in France to make available, to Grey College, resources including a commitment to sharing coaching methods and exchange programmes for rugby coaches.”

The 50 scholarships come with the mysterious donor even supplying French teachers as “scholarship holders are invited to, but won’t be required to take French as a subject”.

It might help as the Du Plessis brothers, Bismarck and Janie, are discovering. Bismarck du Plessis last wore the South African emblem on his chest at the 2015 World Cup. On leaving Grey College he entered the Free State Cheetahs rugby system but like many young graduates with the highest aspirations – including Montpellier team-mate Ruan Piennar before him – he was lured to the Natal Sharks and eventually Europe.

The Grey College website adds: “For the avoidance of doubt: Grey College will not be ‘buying’ talent: The programme will seek to identify talented individuals who do not have similar alternatives readily available to them. Applicants whose financial position does not impose any restriction on their attendance of Grey College or similar institutions will not be eligible for this scholarship.”

No buying but this clears the pathway to earning euros and removes the nuisance of having to become a Springbok.

Anyway, the Guinea Pigs are coming home today with jaded Kiwis, Isa Nacewa and Jamison Gibson Park, having done the 28,000km round trip twice. Besides highlighting the troubled relationship between the New Zealand and South African governments, along with the need to stow your laptop before take off, what lessons can Leinster impart to others travelling south of the equator?

That should suffice for now.

“Why can’t we think bigger?” asked Anayi, in August. “That is what it was always about – the Celtic nations should look outwards not inwards.”

Prime example

Fair enough. Perhaps doing nothing was not an option when faced with a financial boost of €500,000 per team but there remains the threat of long-term damage to their brand by creating a league with multiple uncompetitive sides.

For a prime example of where this can lead see the newly revamped Super Rugby for 2018.

“Super Rugby is one of, if not the best, club rugby tournaments in the world,” said Sanzaar chief Andy Marinos at the announcement of the new 15-team conference where, despite the removal of the Southern Kings, Cheetahs and Wessels’s Western Force, an eight-team playoff remains in place.

Sounds like an awful lot of rugby to eliminate seven teams.

The Champions Cup remains the best club rugby tournament in the world.

This will be borne out when Montpellier visit the RDS on October 14th.

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