I want this to be a positive piece, but it has to start from a realistic point-of-view, and that is no competition born from the Celtic League, whether it be a Pro12, Pro14 or the newly announced United Rugby Championship, can ever be close to an ideal competition.
There are reasons both in and out of the organisers’ control, but the lack of away fans, a mix of Union and privately owned teams, hugely different local economies, too many teams for a double round-robin fixture list that would make the final league table fair, and too many international games preventing top players playing for their clubs regularly all count against them.
When push comes to shove the competition will always lag behind it’s English and French contemporaries as they can enjoy those local rivalries, settled competition structure, spread out the impact of international call-ups across more teams and enjoy bigger TV deals.
However, this new United Rugby Championship can at least close the gap to the smallest it’s likely to ever get to as the four better South African teams bring increased revenue and greater competitiveness, the competition structure is simpler to follow and hopefully unlikely to change over the next five years, and it should lead to greater availability of international players.
It is that last point that appears to be the sticking point of today’s announcement though, as although competition CEO Martin Anayi is quoted as saying “we will see heroes taking on heroes every week in iconic locations to create an appeal that will be unmatched in in the world of club rugby”, the accompanying draft fixture dates list immediately contradicts him.
Now Welsh sides are often our own worst enemy outside of the competitions that we play in, and the Professional Rugby Agreement that we’ve signed sees us agree to an out-of-window test match every Autumn as well as an additional week of player access for the national team ahead of each window, without getting properly remunerated.
That means that we will not see our internationals for three games next season; the weekend before the All Blacks clash on the 30th October, the weekend of the All Blacks clash and the last weekend of January which is the weekend before the Six Nations starts. That’s on our own backs though, and not something the league should really feel compelled to accommodate.
What it can do though is avoid the need for games to be played on the fallow weekends of the Six Nations when not only Welsh, but Irish, Scottish and Italian national team players are often retained by their national teams in order to rest up during that competition.
The draft fixture dates don’t include games on the final weekend of November, which is not in the international test window, nor on the third weekend of June with a two-week gap between the semi-finals and Final.
If you were to move the two games from the fallow weekends and put one at the end of November, and the other in the first week of June and then cut the gap between the semi-finals and Final, then Wales players would be available for 15 out of 18 regular season games, rather than 13 out of 18 games.
Yes, international players do need to rest, but by moving those two fixtures they get definite rests during the Six Nations, and then the clubs can manage their game times in the two weeks after the Autumn and Six Nations before European competition, perhaps splitting their international stars over the two games rather than being deprived of all of them at once.
As things stand on the draft fixture list we will miss our international players for 27.7% of the campaign. If the 2021/22 season was a Pro14 with the same format as the pre-pandemic competition, they would be available for 15 of 21 regular season games, meaning we would miss them for 28.5% of the campaign. Effectively no change. Not particularly “heroes taking on heroes every week”.
Change those two Six Nations fallow weekends to November and June though, and suddenly they are missing for just 16.6% of the campaign. An easy fix for an easy win if you are the competition organisers.
Overall the move to the United Rugby Championship can be a positive change, and if it comes with fully neutral refereeing teams, a general improvement in the quality of the refereeing, fan-friendly kick-off times and a consistency to those kick-off times, then we really are rocking and rolling.
However, if that draft fixture list comes to life and we in Wales continue to spend a chunk of our season without our international stars, making it very difficult to be competitive thanks to already small budgets, then the competition is on a significant back foot here before it’s even started.