Pro14 sees South African rugby moving north

Time will tell if other teams follow the Cheetahs and Southern Kings into Europe

Martin Anayi, chief executive of  Guinness PRO14 Rugby. “You can continue making this tournament bigger, better, make it more relevant.” Photograph: INPHO/Gary Carr

Martin Anayi, chief executive of Guinness PRO14 Rugby. “You can continue making this tournament bigger, better, make it more relevant.” Photograph: INPHO/Gary Carr

 

It’s that time of year again. The hurling final is upon us. Electric Picnic brings the curtain down on summer revelry. Cork and Belfast turnstiles just clicked into Pro14 rugby.

Slowly but surely people will compute the conference system. There are overnight flights to Bloemfontein altitude and sunny Port Elizabeth.

Conor O’Shea has got his systems up and running in both Italians clubs. Michael Bradley (Zebre) and Bernard Jackman (Dragons) are Irishmen coaching abroad.

Lots of changes. Signs of life. New problems to heap upon the unsolved.

Martin Anayi had a primary task when appointed chief executive of the league in 2015. Expansion into other markets. The American dream is on hold for a number of issues on that side of the Atlantic, but a hunger seemingly exists for the major South African teams to follow the Free State Cheetahs and Southern Kings into European rugby.

SARU chief executive Jurie Roux has already stated the experiment will be a “possible proof of concept of whether a venture to the north is a viable option for South African rugby”.

Ulster welcomed the Cheetahs, the Southern Kings can learn to spell Llanelli.

A three-season window will see how it all unfolds.

Possible pitfalls

“Just give it some time,” says Anayi when asked about possible pitfalls of opening the door to these discarded South African sides. “These are two of the most significant player pathways in the whole of South Africa. Paying in euro or pounds into that market, as opposed to the rand, means they can keep players, attract players and put players on multi-year contracts.”

Not if the player wants to play for the Springboks or earn real euro/pound contracts in the English Premiership and French Top 14.

“Just give it some time and they will be pushing the other teams. If you don’t believe me just ask Rassie Erasmus.”

The departing Munster coach was hardly going to trash the new format at it’s sponsor launch but a rand/euro/pound to know what he will privately be telling young prospective Springboks about this option on his return as chief of the South African system in January.

“Rassie said to me that it provides stability. They can keep the players that come out of the schools and club system on the Eastern Cape. The same is true for Free State. That fills me with huge confidence as Rassie is going back to head up their international programme and this is part of their strategic plan.”

Another glaring issue remains unsolved. The IRFU is very clear on this: Irish rugby survives off the international game. Filling the Aviva Stadium pays players’ wages and keeps the machine motoring.

Rooming together

Over the festive season the public have grown accustomed to seeing watered down versions of the old interpros. When Ireland players should be battering each other into submission at Thomond Park on St Stephen’s Day they are rooming together in Carton House.

The fact that Joe Schmidt has complete control over the best players is a conundrum Anayi has yet to solve, and it continues to damage the newly branded Pro14. Leinster and Munster will continue to run their squads against each other. It doesn’t happen in any elite league in any other sport around the globe.

Sell that.

“I think we can wave more carrots at him [Schmidt],” Anayi replied.

Journalists around the table have heard all this before, and everyone had a quip for the CEO: Best of luck! Joe doesn’t like carrots. He’s a carnivore.

“It’s the only thing you can do,” Anayi continued. “You can continue making this tournament bigger, better, make it more relevant.

“We went to the South African launch with Garry Ringrose who is a cracking fella. His eyes light up at the fact he is going to tour South Africa once a season with his mates.

“But he wants to go. If the players want to go that is a pretty good barometer – if they are saying it is a good idea...”

Driving force

Here’s the contradiction: Philip Browne, the IRFU chief executive, is on the Pro14 board, a key driving force behind the competition, yet he also allows his national coach to pluck players from the competition to ensure Ireland are in the best shape for their primary aim – packing the Aviva.

“It’s a really difficult question because the moment you say ‘Oh, Schmidt is damaging our league’ he goes and beats the All Blacks in Chicago. It is just our job to make it more relevant to you on a more regular basis. That comes back down to time.”

Anayi has earned that extended grace period.

But what about qualification for the Champions Cup? The South Africans need to prove their worth. The plan is to approach the European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) after season three. The suspicion is the public will know the answer long before 2021.

Make no mistake about it, South African rugby is moving north.

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