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Star sightings are everything as PRO12 prepares to chase the American dream

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 24/08/2016

Ambitious plans: At the launch of the Guinness PRO12 season at the Aviva, Martin Anayi (left), MD PRO12 Rugby, and Oliver Loomes, Country Director Diageo Ireland, are eyeing expansion
Ambitious plans: At the launch of the Guinness PRO12 season at the Aviva, Martin Anayi (left), MD PRO12 Rugby, and Oliver Loomes, Country Director Diageo Ireland, are eyeing expansion

Martin Anayi, the PRO12's Managing Director, has said a way must be found for the competition's international stars to feature in a higher percentage of games.

While the cross-border competition currently boasts a plethora of Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italian Test players, often the biggest names will miss league games in favour of featuring on the international or European stage.

At the league's 2016/17 launch in Dublin yesterday, where confirmation also came that the Aviva Stadium will host this season's final and that Guinness's sponsorship deal has been extended until 2020, Anayi stressed that reversing the trend is a pressing concern.

"Getting our international players playing more often, that is key," he said.

"That's a reason why a Leinster fan will buy a season ticket, that's why a Connacht fan would buy a season ticket. It's that they want to see their top international players playing."

While Ulster have yet to feel the pinch, keeping their home-grown stars in Belfast and managing to attract marquee signings like Charles Piutau and Marcell Coetzee, finances in the league are not keeping pace with the Aviva Premiership or France's Top 14.

Anayi sees increasing the percentage of PRO12 games played by internationals, even though that would mean less fixtures domestically and at Test level, as a way to bridge the gap.

"We have to put more bums on seats on a regular basis and inject more money through sponsorship and broadcast," he said.

"That also means widening our eyes and our scope. The key thing is that we need to see the international players playing more often."

While the PRO12 continue to explore various avenues of growth, the one sure to garner the most attention is expansion into America.

Talks have taken place centered around adding teams across the Atlantic which Anayi described as "very positive."

The introduction of new teams, but also the need to play less games, would require a conference-style competition with a greater emphasis on the end of season play-offs.

Citing a growing appetite for rugby Stateside, Anayi added that the huge Irish population in the US would only help generate interest in potential additions.

"There's a massive Celtic Diaspora in America," he said.

"The fact is, there is a lot of interest for the New Zealand (versus) Ireland game in Chicago in November. That's sold-out.

"There's a massive Celtic interest and there's a massive Italian community. There are 19 million people who consider themselves Irish American.

"There are 12 million who say Italian American. I wouldn't downplay how relevant that is.

"Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, they're easier to get to, they fly direct from Dublin for example, but we haven't gone into that level of detail yet - that's just me thinking."

On how long it would take to implement such radical change, Anayi was reluctant to answer.

"It's hard to give you time-lines. We're just at too early a stage of discussion. The reality is that it may not get done," he said.

"If one of those boxes isn't ticked - if it is bad for player welfare or it is bad logistically - there are a lot of things that could not work out but it is a very positive discussion."

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