Travel can broaden game but club trips to US and South Africa make little sense | Robert Kitson
Before this week the most absurd away fixture in European club rugby history was probably Connacht’s 12,000-mile round trip to Siberia in November 2015. The Irish province did manage to beat their Challenge Cup opponents Enisei-STM in temperatures as low as -18C but a technical fault with a charter plane caused such travel chaos some players were stranded for days. “Energy levels at all time low … BO levels at an all-time high,” read the memorable tweet from the Connacht back-rower John Muldoon.
Once upon a time crossing the Severn Bridge was the most exotic cross-border club rugby experience available. Not any more. This week, Newcastle will abandon Kingston Park to face Saracens at the Talen Energy Stadium, a football stadium in Chester, Pennsylvania. On Sunday, in the unofficial Sir David Attenborough derby, the Cheetahs entertain Zebre of Italy in Bloemfontein. On Saturday, Leinster will meet the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth.
Where on earth is the logic of a struggling Italian side travelling all the way to southern Africa to play a team ousted from Super Rugby? Think of the extra costs, think of the carbon bootprint? There are not many Newcastle supporters in Pennsylvania either; cheering the Falcons in the United States tends to be confined to Atlanta. At first glance it is akin to Derbyshire or Somerset trying to sell tickets for a game of cricket in Osaka.
Edward Griffiths, formerly the chief executive of Saracens and the South African Rugby Union, is among those who believe the additional air miles can be counter-productive. “In isolation these matches are just the circus that arrives in town, puts up the big tent and then leaves,” Griffiths says. “The financial position all depends on the deal you’ve done with the circus. Some are good, some are less good. In the absence of a short-term financial windfall or a long-term strategy, these sort of ventures are going to be pretty inconsequential really.”
Much also depends on where you erect the big top. Griffiths has doubts whether America is the ideal place to host Premiership games and reckons Japan might ultimately be a better choice: “Rugby in America to me looks like a collection of individuals and companies looking to make a quick buck out of what they perceive as a growing game. No one is actually prepared to do the hard yards and build the structure of the game. It’s all very fragmented and short term. Until that changes, I can’t see it being much of a developing market.
“Premiership Rugby would have to answer whether these fixtures are having any impact on rugby in America. Personally I would doubt it. With these games you’re planting a seed. If you plant a seed in the desert it’s not going to do very much. If you plant it in a fertile area you never know what might become of it.”
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The Pro14 venture into Africa makes slightly more short-term sense for both parties although Griffiths is not a million miles off when he describes it as “a marriage of the desperate and the desperate.” The Cheetahs and Kings are simply trying to stay in existence; the Pro14 badly needs to boost its profile and television revenues. “Strategically I’ve long thought there’s a future for north v south rugby in South Africa,” Griffiths says.
“But when you do something for the first time you need to put your best foot forward. It’s just a pity the Cheetahs and the Kings, with all due respect, are not the best. There might be some novelty interest but beyond that it is going to be limited.”
This week in the Free State, Leinster will also have to contend with temperatures of 32C with the southern summer fast approaching. “Playing rugby in Bloemfontein in December is bonkers,” Griffiths says. “There’s a reason they don’t play rugby there at that time.”
And never mind the poor old away fans, not that Zebre supporters travel anywhere in mass herds. Those who insist TV eyeballs are now infinitely more important than paying customers backing the opposition are overlooking this year’s Lions tour to New Zealand; without the red Lions’ hordes, would the concept have felt as special or even continue to exist? Travel can broaden the mind but, equally, it helps to have a viable destination.
More protection for No10s
The Premiership is barely a fortnight old but there is one early concern. It did not require poor Demetri Catrakilis of Harlequins to be taken to hospital with a fracture to a bone in his throat to detect a trend; skilful No10s being forced off the field following wince-inducing collisions. Quins’s Marcus Smith against London Irish, Exeter’s Gareth Steenson at Gloucester, Worcester’s Tom Heathcote against Wasps … all felled by legal but ferocious hits that deprived their teams of their playmaker at crucial points. Pressurising the opposition 10 will always be part of the game – as George Ford is currently being reminded – but the old days of sidestepping a solitary wing forward a la Phil Bennett and finding acres of usable space are long gone. If rugby fails to preserve its diminutive baton twirlers, it will be an immeasurably poorer sport.
One to watch this week …
Good luck to all involved when the inaugural Tyrrells Premier 15s women’s domestic league kicks off this weekend. On the back of last month’s women’s Rugby World Cup – and with an investment of £2.4m from the RFU over the next three years – the aim is to improve standards within the women’s game and increase the talent pool available for selection for England. “We hope to double the number of women and girls playing the game over the next four years to 50,000 players and a lot of them will want to participate in this league,” said Nigel Melville, the RFU’s director of professional rugby.