Pro14 expansion ‘is just the start’

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Scarlets won last year’s Pro12 competition, before the decision was taken to expand it to 14 teams

The Pro14’s move into South Africa is just the start of the competition’s expansion, with North America among future areas of growth.

South African franchises the Cheetahs and Southern Kings have joined the enlarged Celtic and Italian league.

And Pro14 boss Martin Anayi says discussions will continue regarding further expansion.

“We are still looking outwards. We won’t sit still,” Anayi told BBC Radio 5 live.

“We had set out when I first came in that we were looking to expand rather than contract. We needed to do that to be competitive with the English league and the French league.

“South Africa is a huge market for us. The Cheetahs and Kings can add massively to our tournament.

“So let’s get that right, do that well, and then look forward again.”

As well as looking across the Atlantic, Anayi also has revealed interest in the Pro14 growing into other parts of Europe, for example Germany and Georgia.

“We have to look at all opportunities,” the chief executive said.

“We set up the tournament structure to expand further at the right stage, and I think that’s the right thing to do.”

For years the Pro12 had struggled to match the financial might of European rivals the English Premiership and French Top 14, but Anayi feels the increase in broadcast revenue – as a result of the expansion into South Africa – is “game-changing”.

“It gives us a long-term strategic plan, and a market in South Africa with 55 million homes, in a genuine rugby market,” he added.

“It’s confidential in terms of the actual figure. We can’t really match the English and French for one domestic TV deal, so let’s do it differently. This is the first phase.

“So it just made a lot of sense. Can we grow further? Yes, we will grow further. Can we deliver more money back to our clubs? Yes, but at the same time our costs are increasing because we need to elevate our standards.

“The revenue that’s generated from the expansion goes a long way to that.”

Kings need a ‘year or two’

Southern Kings and Cheetahs fans wave banners at their final Super Rugby match in July

The Port Elizabeth-based Southern Kings have only retained 15 players from their Super Rugby squad for the upcoming Pro14 season, and Anayi admits it may take time for them to settle.

However he is confident both outfits will add value to the league, on and off the pitch.

“I would say we would need to give them [the Kings] a year or two to kick into gear,” Anayi said.

“The Cheetahs are Currie Cup champions and have fantastic depth. They have a few injury problems at the moment at fly-half, but once they come back they have three or four genuine contenders at 10 for international honours.

“The phrase ‘hotbed’ is used a lot, but it really does apply to both the Free State and Eastern Cape, for different reasons, and that is what excites us.

“A little bit of latitude for them to get it right, and they will come good.”

Move has had a ‘fantastic response’

Rugby league has already expanded to Canada, with Toronto Wolfpack joining the English league earlier this year

Meanwhile, operating in a Europe-based competition is hugely beneficial for the welfare of South African players, says Cheetahs captain Niell Jordaan.

“It means you are going to be fresher each week, there isn’t going to be any jet-lag, and you can put on the best show week in and week out,” he told BBC Radio 5 live.

And it could lead to more South African teams featuring in the northern hemisphere, according to other leading figures at the Blomefontein franchise.

“We’ve had a fantastic response from our support base and sponsors and players. Everyone is very excited,” said coach Rory Duncan.

“It’s always difficult to talk on behalf on the other franchise, but I am pretty sure they are all watching to see how the first year or two goes.

“I think it could be a possibility for more teams from South Africa playing [in Europe] in the future.”

Despite his players starting the season off the back of a Super Rugby season and in the midst of the domestic Currie Cup competition, Duncan believes his side have the potential to be a force in the Pro14.

“I’m confident we do have a squad that is going to compete very strongly in this competition,” he said.

What does the Pro14 expansion mean for rugby union? Hear the discussion on BBC Radio 5 live’s season preview show, Tuesday 29 August at 19:30 BST. The programme will also be available as a podcast.

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