© The Fan Experience Company 2022
'Money shouldn’t necessarily be a reason for failing' — URC chief's verdict on Welsh teams
The inaugural season of the United Rugby Championship is heading towards its conclusion, amid a qualification battle both for Europe and the play-offs.
So how has it gone with the four South African Super Rugby sides on board and what’s the verdict on the Welsh teams, with all eight of them in the bottom half of the 16-team table? Martin Anayi is the chief executive of the URC and he has sat down with the media to answer the key questions.
Q: How would you assess the situation with the Welsh teams and the way the URC is viewed in Wales?
A: I was down in Swansea visiting the Welsh regions, their chairs and CEOs, two weeks ago. They have got an absolute commitment to being at the top of our table. You have got teams there with budgets that are bigger than the budgets in the English Premiership next season, so money shouldn’t necessarily be a reason for failing. I think there is something else that they need to look at there. I know there are very good discussions going on with Steve Phillips (WRU CEO) about getting funding sorted out for next season and getting a platform for them to build from.
I saw what is possible with a strong Welsh region, when the Scarlets won our league in 2017, defeating Leinster away from home and then beating Munster in the final. We just haven’t seen enough of it. We get really great support from our broadcast partners in Wales, there’s a really ardent fan base. If you have one ear on social media, you might think it’s all doom and gloom. I get a lot on the opposite side on how committed they are to the competition and how much they want to win it. Success will go a long way in Wales. When Scarlets won the league, the following year crowds went up in at least three of the four regions. Success on the pitch has got to be a key priority for rugby in Wales.
The regions are connecting better to the club game than they have ever done before. Cardiff is a good example in terms of how they are using Cardiff RFC now as a development pathway. Hopefully the connection between regional and club rugby will get stronger and stronger and that will serve us in good stead. Having a disconnect between the two hasn’t served anybody at all.
Q: One concern Welsh fans have raised this season is kick-off times, in particular the number of games at 7.35pm on a Saturday evening. Is there anything you can do address those grievances?
A: It was a key talking point when I met the Welsh regional bosses and it’s one of the key issues we want to address. As always, when you have free-to-air broadcasting there is a trade-off in terms of less flexibility with kick-offs. They have very fixed times when they can put live rugby on and it tends to be Friday or Saturday evening.
But we have talked to all our broadcasters about earlier slots that work better from an attendance point of view because that’s what this is all about – getting more bums on seats and getting more people to watch it on TV. So kick off times do need to improve, certainly in Wales, but also in Scotland. There is continuous dialogue with our clubs to try and get the best balance of full attendance, but also as many people watching on TV as possible.
Q: How do you view current attendance levels in the league?
A: We all need to work hard to bring people back into games post Covid. But, saying that, Cardiff had over 10,000 into their ground at the weekend and we had 22,000 in Durban, which I was very encouraged by. They have invested in a water slide park at one end of the field and they have got a beach bar at the other end and they put a concert on after the game. That’s how hard we have to work to improve the fan experience, not just because money is tight but because the TV product is so good. We are doing a mystery shopper exercise in Wales at the moment where we have a company providing scores back to the clubs to see how they can improve things so fans can have a better experience.
Q: You had a situation this season where the South African sides travelled to Europe without their international stars and the same happened when European teams headed down to South Africa. Is there any way of avoiding that moving forward?
A: We started the season with all four South African teams touring Europe for four weeks for Covid-related reasons. That won’t happen next season, that’s not the format we want to see deployed. We will do two at home in South Africa and two in Europe on any given weekend. So we will see a better spread of games.
In terms of the clash with the Rugby Championship in the autumn, that alignment of those windows needs to be improved from our perspective to see those Springbok players available in the first rounds of our competition. We think that’s achievable. There’s a good conversation happening around aligning those windows better so it won’t have an effect on the start of our season.
With 25 matches having to be rescheduled due to Covid we unfortunately had to put fixtures into the Six Nations period this year. We will not be playing across international weekends next season. It’s then for all of us to have conversations with our Unions about when players are released from camp. That’s the bit we are focusing on at the moment. There’s a bit of discrepancy between what happens in England with the RFU and what happens with our Unions. Getting some continuity and consistency across our Unions is important for sporting integrity.
Q: How do you reflect on the first year of the URC as a whole?
A: We had a great start to the season and then obviously we were out in South Africa when the omicron variant was detected. It was a tough couple of months, really, really difficult. To get through that period and re-schedule all 25 postponed games has been really pleasing. Now we are getting to the point of the season where it’s all to play for and the South African teams we have brought in are really stepping up.
On the broadcasting front, our strategy was to have more free-to-air television in our domestic markets. We are really pleased we have been able to break through the 13.3m viewers over 12 rounds. We have surpassed the total amount of viewers from last season already and will push that even higher through the final rounds. So I really think URC has got off to a good start.
Q: How much of a dent did that omicron episode out in South Africa have on the season in the sense that you’ve been playing catch-up ever since?
A: It was damaging. It was damaging being out in South Africa knowing how hurt they were. It was the first time we were going to see them in the URC on home patch. We had to wait until March for that to come to fruition. But one thing we have learned over the past couple of years is you got to be resilient, roll with the punches and keep bouncing back. It was a very cathartic experience for the four teams to go back in March. We had a great time. So while what happened in November was not forgotten it was put behind us and we got to move on.I
Q: Under your new European qualification system, the team that finishes eighth is probably going to be squeezed out of the Champions Cup to bring in a team from Wales? How do you feel about that?
A: The main concern was you would get four strong South African sides in and it would mean Celtic or Italian sides missing out. The reason we did it was to make sure the Champions Cup is as broad a church as possible with teams from as many countries as possible. It was felt this mechanism gave us a broader reach and broader distribution.
We entered into it knowing we might get these kind of discrepancies from a sporting integrity point of view, which is why we put a two year review in. If we get into this situation twice, I think it’s highly likely we would then revert back to straight jeopardy with the top eight going through regardless of where they are from.
I like the breadth personally. I like seeing the Welsh, Scottish and Italian sides in the Champions Cup. There were more people with me than against me on that point. Have we got it exactly right? That’s why the review is there in a year’s time.
Q: Is there are prospect of a salary cap being imposed in the URC?
A: I am fan of the salary cap in general as a mechanism. I do like the idea if it’s in conjunction with other measures, such as distribution of talent. But it would have be done in away that makes sense and that can only really be where it’s applied across European club rugby. It tends to be the teams with the biggest budgets are the most successful. If you do what they are doing in England and reducing their salary cap to £5m plus some upticks for marquee players etc, the danger is you lose that stardust appeal and competitiveness in Europe, with players moving to other leagues.
Q: With twice as many South African sides on board now, compared to the old PRO14, to what extent has the competition income increased?
A: It is materially higher than it was. We have contracts with SuperSport and sponsors in South Africa. We didn’t do it for the money. We did it because we thought the four teams coming in would add to the competition and I think we are seeing that with Stormers second in the table, Sharks into fourth, Bulls eighth. So it’s not just about the money but that has obviously increased considerably. We took a huge hit cost-wise on the year due to Covid, but we will still be more profitable this year than we were last year. The distribution back to the clubs is more this year in spite of that experience.
Q: Having a cross-continent tournament played over two hemispheres is still an alien concept for many people. How much work is there still to do from a marketing point of view to bring the doubters on board?
A: We just won’t stop until the message is out there that we’ve got a competition that is as competitive as any other in world rugby right now. You’ve got ten teams in contention for the play-offs and you could see Leinster being pushed at the top, which is interesting. I think that will continue. You have got the likes of the Lions who are re-building and they will get stronger. The Welsh teams are going to get stronger over the next two years. The Italian sides will benefit from games moving off international weekends.
Q: Is there potential for a second division of the URC, which is something the Cheetahs have been talking about recently?
A: No, it’s not on the cards. We have a job on our hands to make sure the URC is as good as it can possibly be and we are getting there.
Q: On the same tack, is there any possibility of having some form of promotion and relegation?
A: That’s not on the cards either. We are just focusing on the 16 teams we have. Our job is to help the teams that have struggled this season, like the Dragons and Zebre, to get better. That might be new funding, whichever way we can help them to get better. But relegation isn’t on the cards. We have contracts with each of our teams. It’s a closed league effectively. It’s there to make sure those teams can be sustainable and invest in getting better without the fear of being relegated to an unknown competition. It’s a little bit different to the situation in France and England. There isn’t an established division below us. There’s nowhere to go for those teams to be relegated.
Q: One issue that people consistently complain about is refereeing and officiating in the league. How can you improve it?
A: We have brought Tappe Henning in as head of officials. He is very experienced and his brief is very wide. There are improvements that need to be made to the consistency of the officiating. Where we need to get is the referee and the TMO working as a team. More needs to be done in conjunction with the Premiership and the Top 14. There is a need for consistency across the board, not just in the URC. We have made progress but there has to be more progress so it’s something that doesn’t get talked about as often as it does.
Q: Having matches in international windows did give younger players a chance to get experience. Is that something you are aware of amid changing the format?
A: We have been asked to look at an A-team league or a next generation competition that might fit that role. That might be 4-6 weekends a year within the international weekends. Some teams have reduced squads because they don’t have to play on international weekends, so it would have be a development younger U23 competition for it to work.
Q: Are there any plans to have a weekly highlights or review show?
A: We do like that idea. Super Sport do a very good wrap-up show on a Sunday night and a midweek programme which is more of a talking show. We need to do more to educate southern hemisphere audiences about who northern hemisphere teams are and vice versa. So a midweek show that goes into that depth about who the players and coaches are would be something we are missing and that we could do with.