Ex­pan­sion with­out com­pet­i­tive depth will not work

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY - Gavin Cum­miskey

“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.

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.”

Feeder sys­tem

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.

Any­way, the Le­in­ster 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.”

Long-term dam­age

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 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.

There re­mains the threat of long-term dam­age to their brand by cre­at­ing a league with mul­ti­ple un­com­pet­i­tive sides

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