Amidst the dizzy six weeks of a momentous Lions tour, I’ve been keeping a close eye on one story developing in South Africa that has really captured my imagination.
You may recall reports last year that Pro12 CEO Martin Anyai wishes to boost the league’s financial standing – and, simultaneously, its international reputation – by expanding into new and developing rugby markets. At the time, rumours were circulating that the league hoped to link up with one, or possibly two, North American franchise teams.
The USA experimented with its first ever professional rugby union competition in 2015, a five-team tournament which – on the face of things, at least – got a lot of things right on the field, but a few things wrong behind the scenes. The tournament was sadly disbanded after just one season, and I feared this would be a huge setback to the development of professional rugby union in the States – a country which, let’s face it, has the athletes and financial clout to be a rugby superpower.
Simultaneously, a rumour was circulating that America could be ready to enter a team into the Pro12, taking the cross-border competition to uncharted, trans-Atlantic territory. To me, it seems like a match made in heaven: the USA would benefit from regular exposure to high quality professional rugby; meanwhile, the Pro12 could set up new lucrative broadcast rights and sponsorship deals in an upcoming rugby market. It would be even better if Canada could get in on the action, too, an idea I’m sure the Pro12 bosses wouldn’t object to.
Sadly, USA Rugby’s governing body quickly dismissed the notion, and although expansion into North America remains a possibility going forward, the Pro12 – for now – seems set to expand south, instead of west.
The southern hemisphere’s premier club rugby competition, Super Rugby, recently announced its intention to downsize from 18 to 15 teams from next season. Two teams from South Africa will be cut from the competition, along with one team from Australia. On Friday, it was announced that the Free-State Cheetahs, based in Bloemfontein, and Port Elizabeth’s Southern Kings will both lose their places in Super Rugby at the end of this season. As fate would have it, their final game in the competition will actually be against each other, on 14th July.
Both teams have released rather positive statements regarding the future of the clubs, outlining their intention to broaden their search for a quality, international club competition. And, although no official statements have yet been made by the Pro12 board, it is being widely reported across Europe that the league has approached both teams about joining as early as September, in time for the 2017/18 season.
This could be a huge moment for world rugby. The news has divided opinion among some fans, perhaps raising questions over geographical restrictions or the ability of these particular teams to compete (they are perennial strugglers in the Super Rugby competition). However, I believe their inclusion would be an excellent move.
This sort of expansion is ambitious and forward thinking. South Africa is a rugby heartland. Their fans are knowledgeable, passionate and territorial, and they take their rugby very seriously. They expect high standards from their teams, and will help drive standards forward in the Pro12. They could have a major impact on the brand of rugby played right across the league, encouraging faster, more open games. Furthermore, the time difference is never more than two hours between the British Isles and South Africa, meaning that, despite the lengthy flight times, it could be argued it actually makes more sense for these teams to compete in a European competition than against teams from Australia and New Zealand.
Finally, this move could form a long-awaited link between rugby in the northern and southern-hemispheres. I’ve long held a desire to see a world club competition, and this could very well be the first step towards making it a reality. The world rugby calendar is set to become more closely aligned in 2020, through a series of measures geared towards having one global season. I feel this could well be the beginning of something huge.