What I know about scheduling a full season of a professional sports league wouldn’t fill the clichéd intro of a blog post. But that won’t stop me speculating.
The addition of two South African teams to the Pro12 from next season looks increasingly likely, if somehow no more plausible. The move would instantly make the soon-to-be Pro14 one of the biggest sports leagues in the world – geographically, that is, though in no other sense. The longest prospective trip, between Glasgow and Port Elizabeth, would be over 6400 miles. That dwarfs the biggest separation in North American sport, between the National Hockey League’s Vancouver Canucks and Florida Panthers (2800 miles). Even Slovan Bratislava and Admiral Vladivostok of the Kontinental Hockey League would wilt at the the thought of that flight, and they’re separated by almost 5000 miles or, to put it another way, Eurasia. Although, the Super Rugby competition that South Africa’s Kings and Cheetahs would be leaving might be the only league with a bigger footprint, circling the entire southern hemisphere and having near-antipodal team bases in Buenos Aries and Tokyo. Plus, Super Rugby no longer wants them, so it looks like Pro
1214 or bust for the Kings and Cheetahs.
The silver lining is that those other leagues cross four, five, six-plus time zones. South Africa is just one hour shifted from Italy, and two from Britain and Ireland, largely eliminating the effects of jet-lag. Still, long-haul travel can be draining in its own right, and it costs whether you cross time zones or not. So that continent-spanning, equator-crossing distance presents a problem: how do you schedule it without exhausting the players, bankrupting the teams and, if at all possible, blowing too much carbon dioxide in Mother Nature’s sad, sad face?
The simplest approach would be to continue the current home-and-away league format with the South African teams added right in. The campaign would bloat from 22 to 26 games, pushing the limits of feasibility – France’s Top 14 shows that there is room in the season for that many games, just. But it would require even more play during international windows than we already have, further straining depleted squads and distorting the standings. It would also likely trigger a review of the Welsh regions’ participation in the Anglo-Welsh Cup – not a deal-breaker, but worth noting. A 26-game schedule is possible, then, but probably not ideal.
The advantage of this route is that it’s straightforward to plan, and to follow. If all the teams can get on board with the extended fixture list, then we can avoid any drawn-out wrangling over realignment and unbalanced schedules and get on with it. With only a couple of months until the new season, that might be important. The disadvantage is that it does nothing to address the travel issues. They can be alleviated somewhat by sensible planning, such as scheduling European teams play both South African teams on one trip, making all South African trips to Europe at least two games long and ideally more, and having teams share intercontinental flights where possible to cut travel costs. But that’s all very easy to type – it might not be possible to implement without exception.
The geography of the situation is going to be a problem, but perhaps we can take the edge off it.
Many leagues, including all the geographic behemoths discussed, are divided into conferences to ease scheduling where the number or distribution of teams is prohibitive to a singular league structure. The advantages of a geographic conference system are a streamlined schedule, reduced travel and the emphasis of popular regional rivalries. That sounds perfect for a new Pro14 … except it’s hard to see a sensible way to carve up the league’s four Irish, four Welsh, two Scottish, two Italian and two South African teams in a way that would produce meaningful and balanced conferences.
Taking a lead from a fairly successful exponent of the conference system in the NFL, let’s say at least four teams are required for a viable conference. That means four conferences are off the table, so let’s try three. Fourteen doesn’t split evenly three ways, and we’re dealing with five countries, so it will be – at best – imperfect. Fortunately, ‘imperfect’ is among the kinder adjectives one could level at the Pro12, so why not the Pro14?
There are two ways to cut 14 three ways with no slice smaller than four teams – 5-5-4 and 4-4-6. The former is a little more balanced, so we’ll try that.
- Irish+ Conference – Ulster, Leinster, Munster, Connacht, Glasgow.
- Welsh+ Conference – Scarlets, Ospreys, Blues, Dragons, Edinburgh.
- Southern Conference – Zebre, Treviso, Kings, Cheetahs.
Two problems here. The first is relatively minor and will be a recurring theme – splitting up the pairs, in this case the Scots. What’s the point of regional conferences if you can’t keep regional rivals together? This issue is possible to work around, though perhaps more so in a two conference system – we’ll get there. The bigger problem is sheer imbalance. Not competitively – though that is an issue, if meaningful regional divisions were possible then a difference in quality between conferences would be tolerable with an appropriate wild card system. The problem is geography. It’s not ideal to have the Scottish teams travelling across the sea or the length of Britain to face their conference rivals, but that’s a trivial matter compared to asking teams from southern Europe to buddy-up with those from South Africa.
The other way, 4-4-6, presents the same problems.
- Irish Conference – Ulster, Leinster, Munster, Connacht.
- Welsh Conference – Scarlets, Ospreys, Blues, Dragons.
- Conference Pairs – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Zebre, Treviso, Kings, Cheetahs.
The Scots are back together, but that’s about all. Even with a healthy dose of inter-conference play, the Welsh regions get to play a majority of their schedule within an hour of their home fields. The Irish would barely be worse off. And yet the rest have to travel the figurative length of the world. It’s simply not viable.
We have to face it – South Africa is too far away. It’s literally Africa away, and Africa is massive. Look at it on a map, and not one of those distortive Mercator projections either – one with fidelity of area. It is massive, and two teams are at a different end of it to the other twelve. Eight-and-six, even ten-and-four and maybe we can make this work, but not like this. As obscene as Super Rugby’s reach is, at least there’s no clear centre to it – everyone has to bear the travel burden. But not here – there’s no way to eat this ridiculous Pro14 pie without force-feeding someone an unfathomably large slice.
Being even, fourteen does split two ways without throwing a fit and chucking its remainders out the pram. As if to labour a point, let’s try it by geography.
- Northern Conference – Ulster, Leinster, Munster, Connacht, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Scarlets.
- Southern Conference – Ospreys, Blues, Dragons, Zebre, Treviso, Kings, Cheetahs.
In a league that reaches from Glasgow to Port Elizabeth, the River Loughor is not an acceptable mid-point. So let’s stop fighting the geography – if anything, let’s lean into it. If long-haul travel is unavoidable, then at least make everybody carry the weight. Let’s divide each nation’s contingent in two so that we end up with two conferences containing two teams from each of Ireland and Wales, and one team from each of Scotland, Italy and South Africa. Something like this:
- Transhemispheric Conference – Ulster, Leinster, Scarlets, Blues, Glasgow, Zebre, Kings.
- Intercontinental Conference – Munster, Connacht, Ospreys, Dragons, Edinburgh, Treviso, Cheetahs.
Better name them something meaningless, right? There’ll only be squabbles if you call them A and B.
The exact arrangement could be tweaked, particularly how the Irish and Welsh teams are mixed. Given that splitting the Scottish, Italian and South African pairs is part of the design in this format, a system of inter-conference play that includes a designated rival, as used for inter-league play in Major League Baseball, could be effective. The national pairs pair off, naturally, and then whatever combinations generate the most interest in Wales and Ireland. They could be fixed, or they could rotate year-by-year if nobody can agree on who hates whom the most.
A team’s schedule could include home and away fixtures against teams in the same conference, totalling 12 games. From there we can adjust the inter-conference schedule according to how long we want the season to be. At 22 games, the Pro12 could stand to lose a few if anything. So let’s say each team plays its designated inter-conference rival home and away too, bringing the schedule to 14 games. If they play the other six teams once, three home and three away, there’s a solid 20-game schedule. To maintain a 22-game schedule, add another round of home and away games between rivals for a total of four per season. To trim it further, reduce the number of inter-conference games against non-rivals as required.
When it comes to the playoffs in this format, we have all kinds of options. The closest to the current setup would be to have the top two in each conference go through to play in a standard semi-final and final. If the regular season is significantly shortened, the playoffs could be expanded. As just one possibility, the conference winners could get a bye through to a semi-final while the teams placed second and third play for the right to face them. If there’s a risk of one conference being notably stronger, the first-placed teams could be the only ones guaranteed a playoff place, with the other two or more teams determined by a best-runners-up wild card system. If we want to get really radical, have the conference winners alone go head-to-head in a best-of-three series for the championship – series are so in right now. There’s a chance to do something very interesting here.
As promised, it’s imperfect. Would you believe, there’s no good way to run an Afro-Cymro-Scots-Irish-Italian league? It doesn’t emphasise regionalism as much as we might like, but it does just enough with the designated rivals system. It doesn’t cut out as much long-distance travel as hoped, but at least it eliminates a few flights and trims the schedule. With conferences come the issues of unbalanced fixture lists and strength of schedule, but that’s the price of expansion as a simple league structure becomes unwieldy. There’s no good way to do it, but this might be the best way. If not the best, then the least-worst of all worlds.
As absurd as it seems, it does appear that the inclusion of two South African teams in time for next season – next season – is likely to happen. Writing for BBC Sport, Tom English reports that those close to negotiations put the chances of having a deal in place for next season at around 75%, with some variation of the two-conference structure the most likely scenario. And yet this could all be moot in no time – there are plans to involve a new North American franchise or even two in time for the 2018-19 season, and a new global calendar coming from World Rugby in 2020.
Given the current mess that is the northern hemisphere season, that at least is quite exciting (even if it doesn’t go far enough). But there’s a reason that two South African teams are seeking a new place to play in the first place – the expansion, over-reach and contraction of Super Rugby. There’s a chance that what we’re seeing is the beginning of the Pro12 and its future incarnations trailblazing towards a bright future with a cosmopolitan, globalised season, leaving the insular English and French leagues behind. This could work – I hope it works. But there’s a bigger chance that it’s taking on Super Rugby’s baggage and following in its same stumbling footsteps. Which will it be? The answers could begin arriving soon – crazy soon.