'We can make a big leap' - Pro12 chasing Top 14 and Premiership

Pro12 managing director Martin Anayi believes the league is moving in the right direction.

THE SHEER SCALE of the Top 14 can make others look weak in comparison.

Many rugby fans say they simply can’t warm to the playing style employed by some of the clubs in France’s top league, but no one can question the ambition the Ligue Nationale de Rugby [LNR] brings to everything related to the Top 14.

Connacht’s captain John Muldoon gets the trophy from Guinness Pro12 Chairman Gerald Davies and Martin Anayi The Pro12's Martin Anayi shakes John Muldoon's hand after Connacht's success last season. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Last season’s final in the Nou Camp in Barcelona had an official attendance of 99,124, while global stars of the game continue to flock to French clubs.

Two weeks ago, the LNR released its strategic plan for 2016 to 2023 and it served as a clear statement of intent that this behemoth isn’t slowing down any time soon.

A third professional league by 2021, a new national 7s circuit, and women’s teams at every club. Clearly stated plans, within a timeframe and the finance to back it up. That finance comes partly in the form of the huge TV revenue the LNR earns for the Top 14 and Pro D2, with the figure rising to €97 million per season from 2019.

What of the Guinness Pro12, home to the four Irish provinces, two Scottish clubs, four Welsh regions and two Italian sides?

There are positive talks taking place about an expansion into the USA, as well as plans to shift to a conference system and reduce the number of league games each season. So far, however, there is no clear and publicised plan to back up the Pro12′s ideas.

“We’ve done a strategic review but we haven’t published it,” says Pro12 managing director Martin Anayi when asked if his organisation plans to share its strategy in a similar manner to the LNR. “It’s with our shareholders.”

Anayi stresses that there are clear strategic goals that the unions, broadcasters and sponsors of the Pro12 have shown support of, but we on the outside may not be provided with access for some time.

“The difference for us is that we’ve presented that to our shareholders, who agree with the plan,” continues Anayi. “Whether we want to share that with the public is probably another thing currently, because there are a lot of moving parts in that.”

Launch of the 2016/17 Guinness PRO12 Season The Pro12 season was launched last week in Dublin. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The fact that the Pro12 is made up of four competing nations marks it out as very different to the Top 14 and England’s Premiership, of course, although Anayi is confident that the Celtic-Italian league has the attributes required to grow in the coming years.

“We have to concentrate on our strengths, which is the cross-border element of our competition. That’s what makes us different.

“If you think of our 2021 vision, we’re always talking about that because that’s the timescale for the next TV window. You’re always talking TV windows because it’s very difficult to change the finances of a competition mid-window.”

Catching up on the TV revenue front is essential for the Pro12 – currently the figure stands at around €14 million per season - though there is a recognition that hitting the figures being attained in France and by the Premiership – more than €40 million per season – is realistically not possible at this point.

Nonetheless, Anayi thinks the Pro12 can make up some of the ground next time they negotiate.

“We can make a big leap, definitely. We’re not going to make the leap on one deal the way Canal+ went to €97 million with the Top 14 or the way BT Sport did with PRL [a 50% leap], because that’s one big domestic TV deal based on how many chimney stacks they’re selling to.

“We just don’t have that model because the Celtic nations have a cumulative population of 12 or 13 million people. Italy is still a developing market for us, so we have to think about it differently.

“We have to think about how we actually create more of our tournament almost by showing less. It’s about creating exclusivity, it’s about creating the chance for international players to be playing in a higher proportion of games.

Pre Match Hospitality Martin Anayi Chief Executive Guinness Pro12 Rugby Anayi is the Pro12's managing director. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“That is what are fans are asking us to do. We’ve said that percentage needs to be at 70% or 80% of the games where they international players are fit. A conversation needs to be had at World Rugby level because that’s the window we’re in.”

The Pro12′s desire to move to a conference system ties into their aim of reducing the number of regular season games and adding more glamorous play-off fixtures to the league calendar.

“The reason we would do that is because we’d be looking at ‘less is more,’” says Anayi. “How do we create a tournament where a conference system means you’re not playing everybody home and away, so you’re taking games off the calendar?

“My personal opinion is that the conference system works really well where you’ve expanded the tournament. If you’re expanding the tournament to new markets you have to do that through a conference system.”

Which brings us to the US topic. It sounds exciting or potentially disastrous, depending on one’s position, but where does the process actually stand? Are there concrete plans?

“Nothing concrete,” answers Anayi. “We’re in a really early stage of discourse with the right people in the States and we have the right people around the table discussing whether it’s viable or not. It’s too early to tell.

“It’s all positive and we’re very enthusiastic about their response and how much our teams have bought into it. It has to form part of their [USA Rugby's] strategic plan too. If it does, then great, we are aligned.

“Then we can work out the logistics – where the venues would be, who would be the teams. We’re not at that stage yet.”

George Biagi and Alessandro Zanni The Italian clubs need to step up this season. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

While there is hope of adding one or two US franchises to the league eventually, others wonder what the Italians have offered to the Pro12 and whether they deserve their place in the league.

Treviso and Zebre have been the bottom two sides for three seasons in a row now, and certainly their lack of clear progress has been frustrating.

“They don’t need our help, but we’re incredibly involved,” says Anayi. “Conor O’Shea has come in as national team coach, Steve Aboud is looking after the development pathway, Mike Catt taking over the attack, you’ve got Kieran Crowley coming in as head coach of Treviso, other strength and conditioning staff coming in.

“Those are great hires and if you were going to hire anyone to get their head around Italy and the raw attributes they have, it would be those guys; guys who have done it at club level before, and bring that through.

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“It you talk about the global calendar, the Italian clubs get hit more than anybody. They could lose 25 internationals in a weekend, so for us they are part of the tournament and we believe in their strategy and how much they have invested.

“The next two years will be really important for them. Now, there’s no reason for them not to move forward.”

A year ago, Anayi felt that Irish perceptions of the Pro12 were that it had been “too easy,” but after what was quite probably the league’s best-ever and most competitive season in 2015/16, he believes that has changed.

Connacht’s remarkable trophy success was good for the Pro12, particularly as it concluded in front of a final record crowd of 34,550 at Murrayfield. Encouragingly, almost 32,000 of those tickets had been sold even before the finalists were known.

Bundee Aki with fans Connacht's success capped off an excellent 2015/16 Pro12 season. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The rugby played in last season’s Pro12 was also entertaining on the whole, and the campaign represented a real step forward. Now is the time to capitalise and Anayi believes that this is the beginning of a new era for the Pro12.

“In a year’s time, we’re going to be having a very different conversation, I suspect, about what this tournament is perceived as,” says Anayi.

“We’re going to take pretty significant steps forward, whether that’s through our broadcast, our sponsorship – which was renewed by Guinness through to 2020, which is a massive statement of intent and belief.

“The thing about our growth plan is that we’ve got significant people investing their time in it. All the constituent elements to make that development a success are there.

“The key thing that underpins it all will be when we do it, how much to we develop and, ultimately, making sure that what we do doesn’t jeopardise our most important asset, which is our fanbase.”

Anayi stressed the importance of those fans a number of times at last week’s season launch in the Aviva Stadium, outlining the Pro12′s ‘fan first’ philosophy.

If and when there is a clear strategy in place, the fans of Pro12 clubs would surely appreciate being let in on the key plans. These fans want and need to know what’s going to happen with a league that some still don’t feel is their league.

The LNR and Top 14 are certainly not faultless, but they know how to engage and excite supporters better than anyone.

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Murray Kinsella

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