URC chief explains why Irish Interprovincial Championship was not revived
"We definitely raised that, at the time."
When the United Rugby Championship fixtures and structure were announced, ahead of the 2021/22 season, many fans were excited to see shield competitions introduced.
For years, a large number of Irish rugby supporters have yearned for the reinstatement of the Interprovincial Championship to add some extra spice, and meaning to the season.
The original Interprovincial Championship ran from 1946 to 2002, but fell by the wayside when the Celtic League was introduced. It has been argued, in recent years, that league fixtures could be used to feed into an Interpro competition that would end in one province being crowned the best in Ireland.
For the new URC season, the league organisers announced there would be four shields up for grabs - Irish, Welsh, South African and Scottish/Italian. Some rugby fans believed the Irish Shield would be decided by the results from the inter-pro fixtures between the sides, held as part of the regular URC season.
It was only when the league was well underway that many realised, disappointingly, that the shields would be decided on total league points. At present, Leinster, Stormers, Glasgow Warriors and Scarlets lead their respective shield competitions.
We could have the prospect of Scarlets [currently with eight wins and eight defeats], losing 10 of their 18 games and still winning the Welsh Shield, thus qualifying for the 2022/23 Champions Cup and ending the season with silverware.
During a wide-ranging discussion on the league, and its future plans, URC chief executive Martin Anayi explained why the shields were introduced, and why something like the Interprovincial Championship was not revived.
"The other route was favoured"
Asked, during a media round-table on the United Rugby Championship season, to date, and future plans, we asked Martin Anayi if an inter-pro style competition had been considered, he commented:
"Yeah, good question. We definitely raised that, at the time, through this process that we undertook around changing the format. We went through all of our clubs, unions, and talked to as many people as possible. It literally took 18 months to go through.
"It was felt from a sporting integrity point of view, they didn't want the points to be separate in the shield [competitions]. They didn't want a separate league table for Wales, for example.
"That was the idea, that the shields would be the [qualifying] mechanism for the next two years - this season and the one after that. There will be a review after that. They're a qualification route into the Champions Cup. I think as a result of that, it was felt that you keep it, from a sporting integrity point of view, as simple as possible. And that it should be the table - it should be the points from the overall league table.
"It was considered and, for that reason, the other route was favoured."
At present, three of four South African sides are in the top eight positions in the URC. However, were the league to finish as it currently stands, the Bulls would lose out on a Champions Cup place, to accommodate the top side from the 'Welsh Shield' section.
"Yeah, it's exactly why the [two year] review is there," says Anayi. "That was probably the main concern, originally - that you'd get four strong South African sides in, and it would knock the Celtic or Italian sides out.
"So you've three of the top eight, presently, and the Lions are not too far off [currently 12th]. That's not too dissimilar to how it used to be in Super Rugby. It wasn't that you'd always have four strong South African franchises in one go. Quite a lot of time, it'd be two strong, two not quite as strong... that is why the review is there.
"It could be that they [agree], you know what, we're going to take our chances on pure sporting jeopardy, the up-shot is you might get four South African sides, you might get four Welsh, four Irish sides. So you reduce your breadth of participation [across the unions] in Champions Cup. That's the flip side to that same coin."