One more weekend to get out of way before the excitement begins, the dawn of the Pro 14. That’s right, it’s actually exciting.
Sure the league gets moderately interesting every season post-Six Nations when some teams (ok it’s the Cardiff Blues) realise that up until March they’ve played like a well-soiled tramp not a well-oiled machine. Time to get arse in gear, win loads of games on the spin and ultimately fall short of Champions Cup qualification because they left it too late. More infuriating than exciting.
The buzz also goes up a notch for the playoffs too; the end to 16/17 was high quality and those Scarlets provided a brand of fearless running rugby that had viewers drooling, and Rob Howley frantically disconnecting all the televisions in Warren Gatland’s house.
This season feels a bit different though doesn’t it? The Cheetahs and the Kings are coming with their high-altitude / low-altitude double act and who knows how they’ll get on. The Kings seem to be starting from scratch and organisers are already asking fans and pundits to be patient, meaning, well it’s obvious what they’re saying. However the South African press are very much talking up the Cheetahs chances of getting in the play-offs on debut. Time will tell.
What was very interesting was the noise coming from the Pro14 organisers about the next destination(s) for its friendly rugby tentacles to invade. This is before we even see if this current expansion works!
Cracking the U.S. market has long been an ambition of both the Celts and the English and one more year of deliberation should secure an East Coast team for the ‘Pro (insert random number here)’.
Then there’s the Georgians. They deserve something, don’t they? No professional structure exists for them but they continue to churn out quality players, who then invariably get snatched by Top 14 clubs.
If this did happen, how would both Georgian or American club teams be made up; a mixture of home-grown talent and mercenaries, or a more Jaguares international-team-in-disguise model?
The other South African franchises will take notes this year and wonder if they want a piece of the same-time-zone Celtic action rather than getting severe jetlag in Super Rugby.
So, where will it end? Expansion as a concept is fine and helping out fledgling nations to raise the standard of the global game is a very noble aim. However when does the balance of helping other countries tip to the extent that it’s at the expense of these ‘established’ nations. Player fatigue, the quality of teams in the competition, travel and logistics expenses impacting on clubs all will come into play.
There’s also the question as to whether it makes a material difference to the target country; the Italian clubs have gone backwards so much and so fast the special edition ending to Superman now has Zebre orbiting the earth the wrong way to save Lois Lane.
England and France will look after their own and they have no need to be charitable or chase foreign bucks, so maybe us Celts just need to take a breath before the next move into the global market to make sure we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot in the long term.
That said, the South African invasion for now makes some financial sense for all parties.
Except for the fans of course – I’m struggling to convince the lady friend that a circa 24-hour one way journey to Bloemfontein for nearly a grand per person to watch the Blues gasping for air on the Highveld is a good idea. She’s clearly very unreasonable. Does anyone have a ‘Gone Fishing’ sign I could borrow?