By Phil Rice
The newly constituted Pro14 league including two South African sides gets under way this Friday at the Kingspan in Belfast.
After much negotiation and discussion the revolutionary league begins life with the South African side the Cheetahs taking on Ulster in Belfast.
Ulster themselves have fielded numerous South Africans in the recent past and one would expect the Ulster crowd will extend a warm welcome to their visitors.
Having left the Super Rugby fold due to financial difficulties, it is far from clear as to how playing in a Northern Hemisphere league will ease the financial burdens of the two South African teams.
Flying from Blomfontein to Northern Italy to play Zebre in front of a few hundred spectators doesn’t appear economically sensible on the face of it, but Martin Anayi, the boss of the new Pro14, says this is only the start of the expansion of the league.
“We are still looking outwards, we won’t sit still. We set out when I came in to look to expand rather than contract,” he said.
“We needed to do that to be competitive with the English and French leagues. South Africa is a huge market for us. The Cheetahs and Kings can add massively to our tournament.”
Anayi says discussions have already been held with the US and Canadian Unions and with Germany and Georgia in Europe, for potential further expansion.
The practicality of players taking a 30 hour round trip to play a club match and then a week later perhaps play a Champions Cup match back in Europe, sounds demanding to say the least.
Anayi is convinced that the additional revenue generated from South African TV rights more than justifies any inconveniences involved.
Only time will tell but expect there may be a few hamstring tweaks at training the week before a round trip to Bloomfontein. The league will be divided into two conferences.
Each club will play the six other teams in their conference home and away, plus all seven in the other conference.
In addition they will have two derby fixtures against the home provinces in the other conference in order to maximise revenue and maintain home and away domestic rivalries.
The winners of each conference will qualify for home semi-finals and the second and third teams from each conference will play off for the other semi-final places.
It was announced last week that the final will be played on 25 May at the Aviva Stadium, for the second year running.
Leinster got their season off to a promising start with a 25-17 win in a pre-season friendly against Bath.
With their five Lions taking an extended break after their exertions, the early season matches will make considerable demands on their squad. Centres Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose will be out for at least two months through injury and Sean O’Brien is likely to be out for 4- 5 weeks.
Munster and Ulster will also rest their Lions for early season matches, although they have all now returned to fulltime training.
The Ulster v Cheetahs match will kick-off the new season on Friday evening followed the next day by Munster v Treviso and Connacht v Glasgow.
Leinster will play the Dragons in Newport on Sunday. Leinster will be the first Irish team to make the trip to South Africa on 16 September when they will play the Southern Kings followed by the Cheetahs the following week.
There will be considerable interest in how the new league unfolds. A successful first season will seemingly lead to considerable further expansion.