"This is a natural evolution for the Championship and not only will the calibre of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings grow audiences, interest and the commercial base for the tournament and our clubs, it is a move that also lays the foundations for years to come. The appeal of professional club rugby has never been greater and we aim to be at the forefront of the game's growth around the world." - Martin Anayi, CEO of Pro14 Rugby, August 2017


We can all be wiser with hindsight and in fairness to Martin Anayi, CEO of what is now the United Rugby Championship, the 2017 expansion of the Pro12 was, as he described, 'a natural evolution'.

The problem is that while expanding the league was a natural evolution, it expanded in quantity rather than quality.

Even at the time, the Cheetahs and Southern Kings needed the hard sell.

Only a few months earlier, they had been booted out of Super Rugby after SANZAR realised their own 'natural evolution' wasn't quite working. Luckily their Celtic pen pals had a spare sofa.

To cut a long story short, it didn't go well.

The idea of bringing in some big South African hitters appealed to the fans, but they wanted the real thing, rather than the supermarket own-brand versions that arrived.

The Southern Kings were a disaster from day one. Four wins across their three campaigns before being wound up when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

The Cheetahs started out reasonably, helped by a big win against Leinster in one of their early games.

However, despite a third place finish that season, the fact they were unable to compete for the Heineken Champions Cup places meant their league position often felt like an irrelevance. They were third in their conference but they may as well have been sixth.

The knock-on of it was that when teams played the Cheetahs, or to a lesser extent the Kings, they were only playing for their own match points. It didn't really matter what the Cheetahs got out of it.

In the end, their function in the league became a tour experience and a tough game at altitude that could be chalked up to experience for the younger members of the squad.


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Before we explore the challenges and the big questions the United Rugby Championship has to answer, it's worth pointing out that organisers seem to be making a conscious effort to address the issues of the old Pro 14 and rebuild their house from the start.

The South African teams - on paper at least - are better.

When you add in the glossy paint of Roc Nation, Jay-Z and a slick new rebrand, there's an attractive showhouse ready for viewings. Now we just have to see if it stand up to the elements.

There are fewer games on the schedule, the logic being that the games you do have will actually mean more.

There's a quota on European places, each region, or 'shield' as they will be known, has one guaranteed Champions Cup place. Specifically, the South Africans have a purpose and a reason to compete.

The broadcasting plan has turned 180 degrees. Following on from the promising numbers in Australia, deals have been agreed in each of the countries for free-to-air broadcasters, along with a new OTT streaming service.

All these blocks have been put in place over recent months to build the structure of the URC, and when you add in the glossy paint of Roc Nation, Jay-Z and a slick new rebrand, there's an attractive showhouse ready for viewings. Now we just have to see if it stand up to the elements.

The first challenge will be on the South African teams to make an instant impact. As mentioned earlier, the Cheetahs taking an early-season scalp over Leinster in 2017 brought them some breathing room, but they did so in Bloemfontein where they consistently provided a challenge.

The Cheetahs started well in their first campaign, beating Leinster in Bloemfontein

All four South African franchises begin the URC on the road, and without their international players. With all four having just come off the back of their Currie Cup seasons, and the touring squads largely being the same group of players that have been playing regular rugby across the summer, there's little excuse for them to underperform against teams that have had small pre-season campaigns.

Considering they have been playing since March, logic will dictate that fatigue could be a factor for them in the second half of the season, so they need to bank as many points as they can in the earlier rounds, before they get their Test players back.

Speaking of Test players, it was a big step to shorten the schedule so games don't clash with international windows, but until the game has a global calendar, the Rugby Championship will remain an issue, removing the best South African players early in the season.

How much longer will we genuinely be seeing the best South African players though? Of the 42 players initially named in the Springboks' squad for the Rugby Championship in August, just 20 of those were contracted to URC teams. Taking Munster's Damian de Allende and RG Snyman, and Ulster's new-signing Duane Vermeulen out of the equation, you're down the 17 players across the Stormers, Sharks and Bulls. The Lions didn't even have a player in the squad.


The Pro12 from 2011 to 2017 was highly competitive, with six winners in seven years

On top of the new questions, there are also plenty of existing issues sitting on the in-tray.

Making the competition bigger doesn't necessarily make it more competitive. In the seven seasons of Pro12 rugby we had six different winners. The small competition was competitive and brilliant. Since then, Leinster have won four straight.

Unfortunately for the Welsh fans, the girl next door they've been pining after is barely even aware that their admirer exists. They'll have to make do with the arranged marriage.

Creating and maintaining cross-border rivalries has been an issue even since the early days of the Celtic League, and it's the very reason the Welsh rugby public have never fully bought into the competition.

They have a point too. Ulster away is a harder sell for Cardiff fans than Bristol or Bath or Gloucester, where you can hop on the train and get the full away-day experience. Unfortunately for the Welsh fans, the girl next door they've been pining after is barely even aware that their admirer exists. They'll have to make do with the arranged marriage.

In previous years we've had some fleeting cross-border rivalries. In the early part of the noughties, Munster and the Ospreys generated bad blood, both literally and figuratively. For a few seasons around 2016 Munster and the Glasgow Warriors was spicier than a Carolina Reaper, while the Scarlets and Leinster produced gripping, heavyweight prizefights in 2017 and 2018. But all of them had a shelf life.

Things often got heated between Munster and Glasgow between 2015 and 2018

With more teams, the URC seems to be focusing more on making the long-standing rivalries deeper, rather than trying to make cross-border grudges a thing. With the new format, teams will only play clubs outside their 'shield' once, meaning there is less chance of an Ulster v Edinburgh providing a spark from one season into the next.


In providing more incentive and guaranteed Champions Cup places for Wales, South Africa and Scotland/Italy, the URC are banking that the Irish loyalty remains.

With Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht dominating the top tier of the competition in recent seasons, there had always been a larger buy-in from the Irish sides to the Pro14.

We were good at it, so naturally it suited us.

However, with less European spots available to play for, and a reduced fixtures list, the preservation of derby matches means that the Irish sides will have a greater percentage of their games against better opposition, namely themselves.

There's a risk and reward element there.

The reward being the Interpro matches now have greater value, leading to higher tension and bigger interest. If you're feeling even more optimistic, it might lead to them taking the smaller games more seriously too.

Will fewer games leading to more meaningful games?

The risk is disillusionment. If you're continually finishing in the top eight of the standings, but worse teams are getting Champions Cup spots from a quota system, it might lead to resentment.

If you're doing so in spite of having to play a tougher schedule, your patience could wear thin.

Connacht head coach Andy Friend hinted this week that it was a potentially "unfair" format. Time will tell.

'To me it's a bit unfair' - Andy Friend questions new URC format #RTERugby #RTESporthttps://t.co/qOn0laIajZ

— RTÉ Rugby (@RTErugby) September 21, 2021

ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE LIONS


Off the field, many people will question the ethics of a cross-hemisphere tournament, as our environmental awareness grows.

The increased air travel and carbon footprint of the competition certainly looks at odds with the way society at large is becoming more aware of global warming.

Indeed, with rugby's small Tier 1 population spread apart so extensively around the globe, it's an issue World Rugby needs to put a lot of thought into.

Between Super Rugby, the URC, and the Sevens World Series, the travel involved in rugby is extensive, growing, but far from sustainable.

There's also a pandemic still happening in the background. We all saw the chaos it presented during the British and Irish Lions tour this summer, and with South Africa still on the "Red List" of countries for the UK, tournament organisers have had to be more creative than Inception to create a fixtures list that allowed the South Africans enter Wales and Scotland without a hitch.


ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE STORMERS


Four years on from the "natural evolution" of the Pro12 to the Pro14, the URC was launched.

"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," CEO Martin Anayi proclaimed.

If it's good it has the potential to be great.

But hopefully this is the last of the evolutions.

Follow Munster v Sharks, Saturday 25 September, 7.35pm, via our live blog on RTÉ.ie/sport and the RTÉ News app or watch live on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player