United Rugby Championship CEO Martin Anayi says South African teams will add competitiveness to the newly-formed United Rugby Championship as he allayed concerns around any negative side effects of competition expansion. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
On Tuesday, the new ‘PRO Rugby’ competition including the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers was confirmed with the announcement of the United Rugby Championship to kick off later this year.
The regular season of the United Rugby Championship will take place across 18 rounds with each team’s fixtures comprising six home and away matches against their regional pool opponents, as well as 12 home or away fixtures against the remaining teams in the league.
The newly devised URC may bear similarities to the much-maligned Super Rugby conference format, but it’s the incentive of qualifying for European competition that is sure to make it a game changer for South African teams.
On Thursday, Anayi joined Sharks CEO Eduard Coetzee on a virtual media briefing to discuss the highly-anticipated introduction of South African teams to northern hemisphere competition.
‘When Rassie [Erasmus] had his time with Munster and then went back to South Africa, I think the decision about moving into northern hemisphere competition really became a high-performance decision,’ Anayi commented. ‘He saw the quality of rugby that we’ve got here, and certainly at Munster who are one of the top teams, and that probably helped accelerate the conversation.
‘We want to get back to a point where there could be different and unpredictable winners on each game weekend,’ he added. ‘We know the South African franchises are coming here determined to win, and that’s what gets me excited, because the teams over here need to be challenged, and challenged to improve.
‘That’s also why we’ve seen the clubs here also championing the expansion, because it will push them on and make them better and stronger. That’s what we’re looking for.’
Of course, South African onlookers may view the season format of 18 rounds, 16 teams, and different conferences with a well-placed concern that Super Rugby proved how dangerous over-expansion can be.
However, Anayi insisted this would be an entirely different prospect.
‘I think we have learned the lessons from that expansion. The main thing for us is ‘less is more, quality over quantity’. So although we are expanding the tournament by number of teams, we’re actually reducing the amount of games being played.
‘There will be more international players involved in this competition than any other, and we want to see them play, and we want every game to mean something and to be valuable to them first and foremost.
‘The tournament model has been built inside-out, looking at what players would want from the league. It’s about showcasing the best of them and the clubs, with an easily understandable and fair format.’
Coetzee – speaking from his position as Sharks CEO – said there was certainly plenty of excitement about taking on a new challenge, not to mention the fact that the URC holds the prospect for South African teams to qualify for the Champions Cup from the 2022-23 season.
‘From a high-performance point of view, for us to travel across time zones as we have been [in Super Rugby], I think it took a bit of integrity out of the competition. But now with this competition, if we do our work correctly, then I’m sure we can be really competitive.
‘Before, we’d get into the playoffs, but if you played a quarter-final in Durban and then had to get to Christchurch for a semi-final for example, you’d arrive on a Thursday with a seven-hour time difference and have to prepare to face the best club in world rugby. By half-time you’d be getting a hiding.
‘So I think the high-performance value will be there [in the United Rugby Championship], and then the commercial value will follow because of the quality of competition. Some people in South Africa don’t really know the power of the likes of Leinster, Munster, Ulster. It will be a very different challenge to what we’ve experienced in Super Rugby.’
However, due to the different demands, Coetzee added that he would certainly be a supporter of SA Rugby allowing for franchise squad sizes to increase from 45 to 50, while therefore also perhaps revisiting the current player budget limit.
‘To be sustainably competitive, we may need to look at potentially increasing both… But we’re committed to making this a successful venture one way or another. We know what the challenge will be and we’re going to tackle it head on.
‘It will require a mindset change, and even from a player contracting point of view. A European winter compared to a South African winter is completely different…
‘So if we’re going to be playing through a northern hemisphere winter, you know there will be heavy fields and lots of forward play. So we will have to look at strengthening our tight five, and perhaps also bringing in some coaches with European experience and expertise.’
Meanwhile, Anayi confirmed that the fixtures schedule is set to be released in a few weeks’ time, while hinting that it would not start with just a sequence of local derbies as they look to add ‘spice’ through cross-hemisphere fixtures first up.