With Leinster hosting Munster tomorrow at the RDS, the business end of the league campaign sports teams which have all featured in one or more of the last three finals, Glasgow beating Munster in 2015, Leinster losing to Connacht a year later, while 12 months ago Scarlets delivered a knockout blow to Ireland’s southern province in the showpiece event.
Same as it ever was, perhaps, but much has changed in the PRO14 since the Aviva Stadium hosted the 2017 decider and, if you listen to the league’s chief executive, Martin Anayi, we had better buckle up for further developments in the not too distant future.
These are good times to be at the helm of the PRO14. This weekend’s semis take place a week on from the league’s teams securing a Champions Cup and Challenge Cup double, thanks to the respective efforts of Leinster and Cardiff Blues, while the premier European competition also featured three semi-finalists from the PRO14, all of whom are in action over the coming hours.
In a year in which the league expanded from 12 teams to 14 with the admission of South African teams the Cheetahs and Southern Kings, following their exit from Super Rugby, and Italian teams Benetton Treviso and Zebre lost their safety net of automatic European qualification, Anayi is not the only one who feels good reason to be satisfied with the level of competition the PRO14 has produced this season.
Asked this week if European success for the league was an endorsement of a quality competition, Munster captain Peter O’Mahony replied: “We’ve always believed it was. We play in it. I don’t know was everyone listening, but the last couple of weeks was a great advert for it.”
While recognising that problems remain, Anayi admitted the PRO14 has already exceeded expectations this season.
“If we had said last summer that the Cheetahs would get into the play-offs, that would have been a massive success. There is still loads of learning around how we get down to South Africa and back without being bitten by lions and stuff like that,” he added, a reference to Ospreys hooker Scott Baldwin’s altercation with the king of the beasts on a visit to a South African game reserve.
“The travel part has been a real learning for us, but take some of that out of what Super Rugby do and try and make that better. The Kings have had a tough season, but they have re-signed a lot of their players, which is great news, a good sign and a bit of continuity.
“It’s a bit similar to what we have been talking about with the Italians clubs; give them a platform to sign players on multi-year contracts and you’ll see them improve. We have seen the Treviso team do 11 wins this year and Zebre have their best ever season. It is just giving them a platform to go and be stable.”
Signing new broadcast deals in Ireland with eir and in Britain and Northern Ireland with Premier Sport has also boosted the financial muscle after the positive jolt it received from last summer’s deal with South Africa’s SuperSport, moving the PRO14 to a more even footing with its rival in England, the Aviva Premiership, after doubling its turnover in three years.
Anayi also hopes for further expansion and, though the US has long been recognised as fertile ground to grow the game, the PRO14 boss sees that as a job more suited for Test rugby and the home unions, which are his league’s stakeholders.
Nor will there be a showpiece final on US soil any time soon, but Anayi does see the PRO14’s focus remaining on South Africa, where further teams are reported to be lining up to follow the Cheetahs and Kings into the Northern Hemisphere competition.
“We don’t want to copy Super Rugby, we think we can do it slightly differently in terms of engaging with communities out there.
“Taking the game out of those big national stadiums, 40,000-plus, and moving them into community and club... Varsity Cup does 20,000, 30,000 capacity. That shows you the power of rugby in South Africa.”
What does seem inevitable the further entrenched South African teams become within the fabric of the PRO14 is that they should be allowed to qualify for the Champions Cup.
“Once they start competing and regularly getting into play-offs then they’ve got to play in the [Champions] Cup competition,” Anayi said.
“Whether that’s called Europe any more is another thing, the Russians are already playing in it. I just think it would be a really sensible way forward, because we’ve spent quite a lot of time and energy making a meritocracy, with the Italians.
“What that shows you is that when you really have to earn it, Treviso very nearly got there.
“When there’s no promotion/relegation, European qualification is our jeopardy. I don’t think it will be too long before that conversation comes up at the top table to bring South Africans in. Especially when you see the Cheetahs are in the play-off spot.
“You’ve got to look slightly further ahead than (2019/20). We’ve got people to convince. We’re not the only people who play in that competition, there are lots of different stakeholders, but if we can convince them that it’s good for them, not just for our league, then we’ve a pretty good shot of it happening in the not too distant future.”
The “them” Anayi referenced are EPCR partners in the English and French leagues and getting them on board will mean another round of negotiating an agreeable share of the broadcast money.
“I guess the answer to that is that there are two separate revenue streams: One’s Europe, one’s our league. We’ve done well to make ours bigger. Europe, over the next few years, where are they going to grow? I’d say South Africa’s a pretty good place to start.”