The Breakdown | United Rugby Championship’s South African expansion punt paying off
Here’s a quiz question as an eventful domestic rugby season enters its closing days: which of the two leagues staging grand finals in Twickenham and Cape Town respectively this weekend has had the better campaign? As the Premiership braces itself for the financial demise of a third club inside nine months, a clear winner is increasingly emerging.
No one would describe the United Rugby Championship as a perfect competition from a logistical perspective, other than for long-haul travel experts specialising in flights to and from southern Africa. But credit where it is due. While tickets for Saturday’s final between Munster and Stormers in Cape Town were relatively inexpensive, all 55,000 available seats were sold within three hours. Given the short notice involved, it has further bolstered the case for South African involvement. The URC took a punt and, for the moment, it is paying off in terms of extra interest and enhanced playing standards.
What, though, about the next five years? No one is pretending the club landscape is currently awash with milk and honey. It feels like a timely moment to consult Martin Anayi, the URC’s chief executive, on what else the future holds and whether rugby’s tectonic plates might yet shift significantly once more.
Having overseen the South African expansion, Anayi is hardly going to diss the rival Premiership as it languishes like a beached whale, awaiting grim confirmation that London Irish are going the same way as Wasps and Worcester. Given he and his staff now share an office near London’s Victoria Station with the Premiership and the Six Nations, he knows rugby’s route to the sunlit uplands will have to be built through cooperation, not conflict.
In the opinion of the former London Welsh flanker and trained lawyer, however, the game needs to recognise the blindingly obvious. “The reality is that football is everywhere,” he says. “It’s in every school, every playground, on every TV and in every store. They’ve done an amazing job with that. But I think there’s a role for rugby too. It’s a great game, it just needs more people coming into contact with it more often.”
The steady decline in grassroots playing numbers is also eroding old certainties and making it more important to attract new audiences. “Our audiences in future can’t just be those who have played rugby,” says Anayi, flatly. “We can’t rely on that any more. We have to learn from other sports that aren’t as big as football. We have to be competitive with cricket. The UFC is capturing audiences who I think would also like rugby.”
Part of this evangelical equation is to make throwing a rugby ball around more accessible. “I think we need to create a much more sexy game of touch rugby than we do now. If we don’t, the market share will be taken by the NFL’s flag football programme. We have to be out there engaging with people who might not currently play the game.”
From a practical viewpoint, Anayi also believes a one-stop shop for televised rugby is a crucial stepping stone, rather than the current random smorgasbord of offerings. “One platform for the globalisation of our media rights seems to make a lot of sense,” he says. “The key thing is removing some of the fragmentation. That’s about how we sell, not what we sell.”
Anayi also returns more than once to the stat that 20 million people watched at least 15 minutes of this year’s Six Nations. “That’s a huge number. Sometimes I think we undersell ourselves in terms of how big the sport could really become. I think rugby has a lot of headroom because the scale of the audience is bigger than we’re commercialising right now.”
In this brave new world, how about a potential merger between the URC and the Premiership? They already share the same offices and private equity investors, why not the same league? Anayi insists there are no moves in that direction for one primary reason. “If you went to one league structure that would damage the Champions Cup and the Challenge Cup,” he says. “Our clubs love those competitions and that’s where we get our fix of playing the English and French. It would also damage the income we derive from having a league and a cup.”
Even though two long-term cross-border competitions involving South Africa remains a questionable look in terms of their carbon footprints, Anayi is convinced it is the way ahead. “South Africa will become shareholders of our league. They’re incredibly important. They won our league in year one and they’re contesting this year’s final in Cape Town. They are as much a part of our league as anybody else.
“I’d like to see them in the Seven Nations. I could see the value … they’re proving their worth to northern hemisphere rugby in our league and by the amount of talent they provide to the northern hemisphere.” Pending that day, Anayi would at least like to see the Rugby Championship played in the same window as the Six Nations. “It’s more about aligning the seasons rather than saying where they should or shouldn’t play,” he says.
For now, though, it is all about Saturday in Cape Town, followed hopefully by a cracking World Cup. “We think it’s going to be a blockbuster,” Anayi says. “The bounce you get off the back of a World Cup is extraordinary. It drives change and innovation and gives an impetus for the sport to move forward.”
The URC has its flaws but could it now be better placed than certain other leagues to cash in?
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