Rugby’s traditional northern-southern hemisphere divide will be [inverted] on Friday when, on a cloudy evening in Belfast, Ulster begin a new season by hosting a Toyota Cheetahs side 9,000 miles from their home in the grassy plains of Free State, South Africa.
The fixture marks the beginning of the Pro14; the first cross-continental club competition featuring European sides, formed this summer after the Pro12 added two South African teams — the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings — to its ranks.
Up against rising salary caps and benefactor owners boosting the player-predatory powers of France’s Top 14 and the English Premiership, the already patchwork division for Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italian clubs has broadened its borders as far as the belly of the Indian Ocean in a bid to boost its commercial clout.
By hitching itself to one of rugby’s most well-established markets in South Africa, the tournament expects to raise an extra £6m a year to deliver back to its union-owned clubs.
“As a tournament we were already doing very well but cost inflation was running at 25-30 per cent, so you have to do something quite exceptional to buck that trend and generate more money to give back to the clubs,” chief executive Martin Anayi told City A.M.
“In doing that you can be competitive with the English in terms of overall revenue. It won’t be immediate, but we will get there. Our teams will be able to invest in the player base, retain players and attract good talent. That’s what this has all been about.”
Reigning champions Scarlets also get an early taste of the new-look tournament when they play Southern Kings in Llanelli on Saturday.
The attacking instincts adopted by his side last season drew comparisons to the adventurous style demonstrated in Super Rugby, the southern hemisphere competition Cheetahs and Southern Kings called home until this year.
“I’ve said from day one that Pro12-14 is a lot closer to Super Rugby than any other competition in the northern hemisphere,” Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac told City A.M.
“Both the Cheetahs and Kings are going to add to the teams in the tournament already playing an expansive style of rugby.”
Munster’s CJ Stander is similarly positive from a player’s perspective about the new-look tournament.
Stander, as a naturalised Ireland international from South Africa, knows better than most the compatibility of the Pro14 new boys.
“They pass the ball around a lot,” he tells City A.M.
“They’re teams to reckon with now. In Super Rugby the Kings beat the Waratahs who were the champions only a few years ago.
“There’s Springboks in the Cheetahs and our younger players will get the opportunity to go up against them.”
Rugby spectacle aside, lengthy travel times — journeys to Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth will take up to 12 hours — are not an easy sell to coaches in an age where physical demands on rugby players are more strenuous than ever.
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And as much as broadcasters will be attracted to the cross-continental intrigue, tired players and a confusing format impenetrable to fans were also raised as potential pitfalls of the experiment for tournament organisers to address.
Anayi says the Pro14 took notice of the difficulties that befell Super Rugby’s expansion into Japan and Argentina two years ago. A labyrinthine format, uncompetitive balance and declining crowds have already forced it to scale back.
“We explained that this would work from a player welfare point of view,” says Anayi.
“Are you asking your players to travel 12 hours? Yes. But we’re doing it overnight, we’re doing business class flights and to the same time zone.
“That was the only real concern and once we made that a condition of what we were doing, the rest has been very smooth.”
The 14 teams will be divided into two conferences of seven, with the top three progressing into play-offs — an end of season goal designed to be easily understood by fans — and money-spinning derbies will still take place even between clubs in different conferences.
The South African Rugby Union has signed up for a six-year deal and if it proves a success further expansion could be on the horizon with Canada and the USA particularly attractive.
“There’s some fantastic opportunities on the East Coast [of the USA],” says Anayi. “That to me seems like a step that the tournament should take in the future.”
With rugby’s international reach ever-expanding, it is just possible that the Pro14 has stolen a jump on its rivals as the game goes global.
“World rugby’s evolving quickly and going into a place where it’s going to be one global season,” says Stander. “It’s good to be at the forefront.
“I just think to myself it’s almost like I’m playing Rugby 2007 on the PlayStation and I can just pick what stadium I want to go to. That’s the excitement.”