It is not difficult to see why Celtic Rugby would jump at the chance to breath new life into the rebranded PRO14.
Confirmation that South African sides the Cheetahs and Southern Kings will join the regional competition for the upcoming campaign arrived on Tuesday.
The PRO12 organisers have confirmed that the competition will expand to include two South African sides from the start of this season.
Tuesday brought official confirmation that South African sides the Cheetahs and Southern Kings would, as expected, join an expanded PRO14 competition. But what will the new championship look like?
The announcement brought with it the lure of a reported six-year, £6 million per annum deal that could potentially transform the financial outlook of those involved.
Given the uncertainty surrounding some of its clubs in recent years, it was an opportunity that a competition which has lagged behind the Aviva Premiership and Top 14 could not turn down.
But while fans price up the cost of trips to Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth, the league’s organisers will know that a number of issues lay ahead as they attempt to turn the venture into a success.
Travel and player welfare
Both Edinburgh and Glasgow face a round trip of over 18,000 miles when playing at the Southern Kings’ Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. Shaun Roy/Gallo Images/Getty Images
One of the biggest draws of the PRO14 to the South African Rugby Union is the proximity of the respective time zones.
Britain is just an hour ahead for much of the year, making watching games live on TV a more palatable proposition than in, say, Australia or New Zealand.
But while the time zones might be conducive, there is little hiding from the distance teams will have to travel when playing in South Africa.
Edinburgh and Glasgow, for example, both face round trips of around 18,000 miles for fixtures in Bloemfontein or Port Elizabeth.
The press release that confirmed the expansion included a section dedicated to player welfare, which featured details on how Celtic Rugby would look after its stars.
All games played in South Africa will be scheduled on Saturdays, while flights to and from Europe will take place overnight and organisers will do all they can to ensure that teams playing both the Cheetahs and Southern Kings in a season will do so back-to-back.
However, given that six teams each campaign will be scheduled to play both sides in South Africa, it would seem unlikely that the fixture list can accommodate that many ‘mini-tours’.
Ireland flanker Sean O’Brien played just four PRO12 games last season. Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
As noted above, the additional money brought in by the South African sides would have been alluring for all involved in Celtic Rugby.
According to reports, though, that cash is mainly derived from TV revenue and therefore the organisers will need to ensure that they offer up an exciting product.
The nature of the unions’ control over their players, particularly in Ireland and Wales, has not always made that possible for an entire season.
Ireland’s Player Welfare Programme has meant big names missing big games in recent years, while Wales players under a National Dual Contract can only play a maximum of 16 games (excluding playoffs and European knockout matches).
Clubs and countries face an unenviable balancing act as they attempt to keep players fresh and healthy, but the biggest stars will need to shine brightly if the money is to continue to flow.
Could a team from the U.S. eventually join the PRO14? Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
As well as assurances over player welfare, Tuesday’s announcement also contained some fairly clunky hints that this would not be the only time the competition evolved.
“The agreement,” the joint statement between Celtic Rugby and the SARU read, “marks the first phase of expansion as the Guinness PRO14 becomes a truly global tournament.”
If the drive is to become a “truly global tournament” then what will happen if this first phase is judged to have been a success?
There has been plenty of talk over recent years about the inclusion of London Scottish and London Welsh but the former’s financial troubles have been well documented, and both clubs would appear to have been left behind by this announcement.
SARU is also said to be disillusioned with Super Rugby and could be using the Cheetahs and Southern Kings to test the water with a view to eventually moving its four remaining franchises north.
And then there is North America. Reports earlier this year linked the PRO12 with a bid to bring in a side from the U.S., although that would seem unlikely due to an agreement between Doug Schoninger’s PRO Rugby and USA Rugby for “exclusive rights” to 15-a-side competition in the country.
PRO Rugby’s deal runs out in 2018, however, so if this first phase is a success then expansion into the States could well become a possibility.
But, how would a “global tournament” go down with fans from the traditional unions? Celtic Rugby are right to chase a more financially sound, and vibrant, competition but they must ensure the price for that is not alienating its existing fan base.
Source Article from http://www.espn.co.uk/rugby/story/_/id/20217249/travel-player-welfare-future-expansion-issues-facing-pro14
The issues facing expanded PRO14
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