The organisers of the United Rugby Championship (URC) and the unions of the five competing countries, including the IRFU, appear to be on something of a collision course regarding the timeframe for the 2022-23 competition, and specifically the proximity of its knock-out stages to the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.
The latter is kicking off two weeks earlier than was the case in 2019 to accommodate a longer tournament of eight weeks rather than six, with France entertaining New Zealand in the Stade de France on September 8th. Ireland open their campaign against Spain in Bordeaux the following day.
The northern hemisphere season finishes later than ever this summer, with the URC and Premiership finals taking place on June 18th, and the Top 14 final a week later on June 25th. Due to the proximity of the World Cup, so as to facilitate a proper off-season, pre-season and warm-up games (Ireland are looking to play the first of two or three warm-up games on August 6th next year), the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL) have agreed to bring forward the 2022-23 season by three weeks.
Next season's Premiership begins on September 9th and finishes with its showpiece final at Twickenham on May 27th. Fabien Galthié and Bernard Laporte want the French team to begin its World Cup preparations at the end of June and, pending discussions between the FFR, LNR and Canal+, a decision is expected to be made on May 10th and it is anticipated that the French Championship will be brought forward.
But no such agreement is in place with the URC, whose chief executive Martin Anayi has indicated they are unwilling to follow the example of the PRL.
“We understand that PRL and the RFU agreed to bring the PRL season forward, so we are in that discussion with our unions now. Having said that I think we’re loath to change the season’s structure too much. We do like the end of the season the way it is. We do think it’s our strongest part of the year, but you’re right – some concession might have to be given but we’d be loath for that to be too drastic a concession or change because we think we’ve got a pretty good thing going.
“There’s a reason why the tail-end to the season is the way it is and that was a hard-fought negotiation with everybody involved. We’ve got expectations there from broadcasters and fans and sponsors and teams even. So we’ll see.”
That’s a “no” then?
“I wouldn’t say it’s no [but] I wouldn’t say that we could change it quite as drastically as PRL have done.”
Perhaps Anayi is appeasing his broadcasters for the time being but if the PRL and RFU, who’ve had a fractious relationship over the years, can reach a compromise to facilitate England’s World Cup preparations, then the URC and its unions should be able to do so as well.
If not, then the 2022-23 URC knock-out stages run the risk of being without their Test frontliners, for it's hard to envisage Rassie Erasmus jeopardising South Africa's defence of their World Cup crown by starting their preparations a month or more later than some rivals. Nor, for that matter, will David Nucifora and Andy Farrell be inclined to let the Irish team be disadvantaged by playing longer into the 2022-23 season than others.
Anayi was addressing the media on the day that the URC announced that the competition continues to draw over 1 million viewers each weekend, with the current total of 13.3 million viewers (up to Round 12) already surpassing the league's previous benchmark of 12.9 million for a season (Pro14 plus Rainbow Cup in 2020/21).
Anayi maintained that URC games will not take place on international weekends next season and that as the current two-year agreement (which the IRFU opposed) would need unanimous approval to be retained, from the 2023-24 season onwards the top eight in the overall table will both qualify for the play-offs and the ensuing Champions Cup, regardless of nationality. In other words, it will then be merit-based rather than partially ring-fenced.
He also said exploratory talks had begun with the respective unions regarding a URC women’s competition, if perhaps not with 16 teams, and which should begin “sooner” rather than later.
It’s also understood that the Celtic and Italian unions are exploring the viability of a women’s “regional” competition, conceivably with two franchises in Ireland initially rather than four provinces.
Tappe Henning “will have a wide brief” after his recent appointment as the URC’s head of match officials.
“There’s lots of work to be done,” said Anayi. “I wouldn’t say that we’re anywhere near the finished article. I can say though that we’ve made more progress, but we’ve got to do more to make it [officiating] something that doesn’t get talked about as much as it does.”
Games during Test windows did allow a pathway for younger players and, to fill that void, Anayi said they were exploring “an ‘A’ team league or a next-generation competition” over four to six weekends.
"We just won't stop until the message is out there that we feel we have a competition that is as competitive as any in World Rugby," declared Anayi, who foresaw a revival by the Welsh regions, while hailing SuperSport's "amazing job" in South Africa, where games are supplemented by a Sunday highlights package and a weekly magazine show.
“It’s something that we are missing at the moment and we could do with,” Anayi admitted of the TV coverage hereabouts. “So it’s something we are looking at.”