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Next stop America as Pro14 plans world domination, says Ulster chief

 

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New challenge: Ulster’s Andrew Trimble, Director of Rugby Les Kiss and Sean Reidy. Photo: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

New challenge: Ulster’s Andrew Trimble, Director of Rugby Les Kiss and Sean Reidy. Photo: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

New challenge: Ulster’s Andrew Trimble, Director of Rugby Les Kiss and Sean Reidy. Photo: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Ulster Rugby CEO Shane Logan believes radical expansion plans for the newly named Guinness Pro14 are just the first steps to making the league the most competitive in the world.

It had been known for some time that the two deposed Super Rugby sides - the Cheetahs and Southern Kings - would soon be aligning with what was once the Celtic League, with the official announcement on Tuesday finally confirming new competitors, structure, play-off format and even competition name.

But it is by no means a permanent fixture with Logan revealing that plans are still in place to target the lucrative North American market in an effort to bridge the financial gap between the former Pro12 and its equivalents in England and France.

"The strategy is to have world class rugby played here regularly with Ulster competing at the top level of that," stressed the CEO at Kingspan Stadium on Tuesday.

"Our (Ulster's) strategy has been getting the stadium up to being best in Europe standard. We've had the first Pro12 independent final here, we'll host the women's World Cup semi-finals and final here later this month, we're trying to bring the (2023) World Cup to Ireland, and we're trying to develop the Pro12 to be the most competitive league in the northern hemisphere and then world rugby.

"We're delighted to see the Pro12, now Pro14, product move forward strongly onto a new level. This is a good strong stride towards that and it allows the platform for further development in the northern hemisphere.

"It's well documented, our interest in North America, and we don't see the expansion or the growth ending here."

For the coming season at least, the structure was made clear with Ulster placed in Conference B alongside Leinster, Scarlets, Edinburgh, Dragons, Treviso and the Kings.

While full confirmation of the fixtures is due next week, along with dates and kick-off times for rounds one through 13, at present it is known that Ulster will play their fellow Conference B sides both home and away and the sides from Conference A either home or away. Two additional fixtures will be held against their fellow Irish sides in the competition's other half, Connacht and Munster, to give a slate of 21 games.

Meanwhile, the Belfast Telegraph understands that at present - the proposed fixtures are still subject to change and currently with the broadcasters - the Cheetahs are one of the opposing conference sides Ulster will host, meaning they will play only one game in South Africa, against the Kings, in the first season of the revamped competition.

While inter-provincial tussles in recent seasons have been lessened in some people's eyes due to the rarity of seeing two full-strength sides going head-to-head, Logan added that the decision to protect the full slate of derbies was made with the fans in mind.

"It's a structure that is designed to please home supporters," he said. "We're fortunate that we (Ulster) have the 11 home games (next season) but also that each country retains their derby matches.

"We have a good strong pool but it's great to be able to keep the derbies with Munster and Connacht who we still play home and away."

And while the radical changes feel like an, admittedly required, step into the unknown, there will be plenty of Ulster players now returning more regularly to familiar places.

With the likes of Robbi Kempson, Johann Muller and Ruan Pienaar all making considerable impacts during their times in Belfast, the link between Ulster and South Africa is already well-forged, while current players Marcell Coetzee, Jean Deysel, Schalk van der Merwe, Rob Herring, Louis Ludik, Wiehahn Herbst and Robbie Diack will all be wholly familiar with the new destinations.

"The South Africans have already captured our hearts and emotion," said Logan. "We have more South Africans than any Pro12 team.

"We know the areas that the players are coming from and many of our own favourites come from that area.

"We've known the South Africans and we warm to them here in Ulster.

"We look forward to both battling alongside our own and now against the others in the coming years."

Meanwhile, with Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding having been relieved of their duties and obligations until the conclusion of an ongoing legal matter - on charges both players strenuously deny - Logan confirmed the side are hopeful of adding an additional out-half before the season kicks off.

"We've been looking at recruitment there for well over the year, as we do in all key positions," he assured supporters.

"We've had our radar out there. This is a difficult time to recruit when pretty much everyone is in contract but we're optimistic of making a positive announcement sooner rather than later."

What happens now?

Why have the teams from South Africa been brought in?

The money generated by the Pro12 paled in comparison to that of the French Top 14 and Aviva Premiership. The reported figures for the most recent TV deals had the Pro12 at £11m and Top 14 at £76m. With fears growing over losing star players to other leagues, it was clear that a shake-up was required. Early reports suggest that this initial deal will approximately bring each side an extra £500,000.

 

How will the league work?

With a new structure for starters. With 14 teams, and not enough free weekends in the season to accommodate a full home and away schedule, a conference system will be used. Based on last season, when Ken Owens (right) skippered the Scarlets to victory, the teams have been split into two groups of seven. While it will change each year, Ulster will next season be in the same half as Leinster, Scarlets, Edinburgh, Dragons, Zebre and Southern Kings.

 

Does that not mean fewer fixtures?

Teams will play each conference opponent home and away, meaning a starting point of 12 games. They will then play teams from the opposing conference once with a further two derby games. This makes a total of 21 games, one fewer than last season. However, with the top three from each conference advancing to the play-offs, there will be an extra knock-out round. With an uneven number of regular season games, some teams will play 10 home games and others 11. Importantly, given the number of season tickets already sold, Ulster have guaranteed they will be in the group hosting 11 games next season.

 

Is this the end of the expansion?

It certainly doesn’t seem so. In yesterday’s announcement, it was referred to as “the first phase.” North America has long been an appealing option for organisers with confirmed interest already coming from the USA and Canada. Should this initial move be a success, there are murmurs that other South African sides could be keen to follow suit.

Meet the new boys

Background

The Cheetahs, based in Bloemfontein, entered Super Rugby in 2006 and draw from the western half of the Free State province. They finished last season with a Super Rugby record of 11 losses from 15 games. The Southern Kings, hailing from Port Elizabeth, were formed in 2009 but not granted access to Super Rugby until 2013. However, they were relegated at the end of that season. They returned in 2016 and, while they never really made a dent in the competition, they did notch six wins last season in what proved to be their final year.

 

Stadiums

The Cheetahs play in the 48,000-seater Free State Stadium while the Kings call the Nelson Mandela Bay, and its 46,000 seats, their home. Both were used in the 2010 soccer World Cup held in the country.

 

Coaches

Franco Smith, a Springbok back with a coaching spell at new league opposition Treviso and a playing stint at Newport on his CV, is Director of Rugby in Bloemfontein and Rory Duncan was named as the new head coach last month. Former Boland forward Deon Davids is in charge of the Kings.

 

Star names

The Cheetahs can boast current Springbok Oupa Mohoje, and their captain Francois Venter was capped in 2016. However, winger Raymond Rhule, who appeared three times against France this summer, yesterday announced he was joining the Stormers. The Kings have Schalk Ferreira (below) but don’t boast any household names, though new Ulster signing Schalk van der Merwe spent last season there, as did incoming Munster flanker Chris Cloete. In the past, the likes of Os Du Randt and Willie Le Roux have plied their trade in Bloemfontein while old friends Alan Solomons and Matt Sexton have been in charge of the Kings.

 

Distance to

Belfast

It is 8,915 miles to Bloemfontein and 9,318 to Port Elizabeth. In order to cut down on travel, when teams are to play both South African sides in the same season, games will be scheduled together while all contests in the country will be played on Saturdays.

Belfast Telegraph