England's Owen Farrell will be one of the Saracens players in action in Philadelphia Clément Bucco-Lechat

This weekend, Saracens play Newcastle in Philadelphia in the second instalment of Premiership Rugby’s ‘American Series’, while Zebre and Leinster travel to South Africa for the first Southern Hemisphere fixtures in the newly extended Pro14. The developing trend of playing ‘domestic’ competitions across multiple continents is widely seen as a good thing for the sport, but such optimism ought to be tempered.

In March 2016 Saracens met London Irish in New York for the first ever premiership match staged abroad. This was part of a four-year deal which will see one game played state-side every year until 2019. It is a move aimed at growing the game in America, where it has for so long lingered in the background behind American football, baseball, basketball and, more recently, soccer.

“Despite failing to win a game at the 2015 tournament, there have been signs of improvement in recent years”

The USA has appeared in all but one of the eight Rugby World Cup tournaments to date, and are set to meet England in Pool C of Japan 2019. Despite failing to win a game at the 2015 tournament, there have been signs of improvement in recent years, with an increasing number of American players playing professionally abroad: Chris Wyles and Titi Lamositele (Saracens), Paddy Ryan and Nick Civetta (Newcastle Falcons), AJ MacGinty (Sale Sharks) and Samu Manoa (Toulon). The US 7s team has also had great success, winning the London Sevens two years in a row.

The game of rugby is clearly becoming more popular in the US. The All Blacks have visited twice recently, beating the US Eagles in 2014, and famously losing to Ireland in 2016; both in front of 61,500 at a sold-out Soldier Field in Chicago. What’s more, there is now an extensive amateur league system, but the first professional rugby competition lasted only a year after ‘PRO Rugby’ failed to progress from its inaugural season in 2016, owing to financial troubles.

Yet premiership rugby hope that their initiative can continue the game’s development. Newcastle and Saracens players have this week run community training sessions and will hope to play in front of a decent crowd on Saturday (10PM UK time). Saracens beat London Irish in 2016 in front of 14,811 in New York and, though, the average attendance for premiership games is only around 13,500, it will be hoped that this weekend sees the 18,500-capacity Talen Energy stadium filled.

With all respect to London Irish and Newcastle, you have to wonder why these fixtures have been chosen. If the premiership is only going to play in the US once a year, surely the best way to ensure maximum impact would be to stage a high-profile game between two of the best teams. Newcastle may be joint leaders of the premiership after two rounds, but they are not renowned for scintillating play in the same way as Wasps or Exeter. Why not give the US audience, accustomed to the fast-pace 7s, something to get excited about by putting on a real showpiece?

Ospreys face a trip to South Africa to take on Cheetahs in the Pro14Chris Jobling

Certainly, by staging fixtures in the States, premiership rugby are doing its own interests no harm. A three-year deal with NBC allows the channel to broadcast a ‘Game of the Week’, and stream another 50 or so games digitally to a potentially vast audience. The financial details of the deal have not been made public but, while this could be huge in terms of growing the game, premiership clubs are sure to benefit financially.

A similar deal has been negotiated between the former Pro12 and the two South African clubs axed from the Southern Hemisphere´s Super Rugby competition, the Southern Kings and the Cheetahs. The Pro14, as it is now called, consists of teams from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy and South Africa. The Pro12, as the premiership’s less wealthy cousin, had for some time been looking to reach new markets. Talks were held in the US about the possibility of a transatlantic league, but ultimately the tournament has expanded south of the equator. A broadcasting deal with South Africa will increase the league’s revenues, whilst the addition of two teams from one of the Southern Hemisphere’s ‘Big Three’ adds interest for the Celtic fans.

Yet it remains to be seen whether this is an entirely positive change. When they were cut from Super Rugby, the South African franchises underwent significant personnel changes and, though the Cheetahs are the stronger of the two, they will be without their few Springboks until the Rugby Championship ends in October. The Kings, meanwhile, only have Italy´s second-row Dries van Schalkwyk of international calibre. The Pro12, which already contained two Italian sides of dubious quality, has not added a huge amount of world class talent.

Another difficulty with this cross-continental tournament is the differing climates. By December, teams visiting the Southern Kings can expect to be playing in 25-degree heat, whilst those visiting the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein will have to contend with both extremely high altitude and at least 32 degrees. Given that temperatures in Scotland may well be approaching zero in Scotland during these months, the contrast for players will be huge.

Such varying conditions will be difficult for teams to manage and, while this challenge is not necessarily a bad thing, players will have little time to acclimatize, placing additional strains on them both mentally and physically. In these times when player welfare is at the top of World Rugby´s priority list, and international players face 10-month seasons, the benefits of such a challenge can be duly questioned.


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Then there’s the travel. Long-distance travelling benefits no one here, except for the airlines. There are numerous scientific studies showing that long-distance travel negatively affects athletic performance, and it is yet another thing for teams to contend with in a busy week when they are recovering from one game and preparing for the next; not to mention the cost. Super Rugby, with teams based in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan has been lamenting this issue for a while now. If long-haul flights are to become a regular part of the modern game, then competitions ought to build in rest weeks.

You also have to question how much sense this makes for fans. How many fans are going to be able to afford to fly to South Africa or to the US for these games? How many people are really going to travel to see Zebre play the Southern Kings? And how many Americans have even heard of the Newcastle Falcons?

The Pro14 is prioritising quantity over quality in its new format, whilst the premiership’s ‘American Series’ prioritises neither. The concerns over both of these cross-continental competitions suggest that they will probably be short-term affairs. They might make a few people a “quick buck” but whether they are for the good of the game and the good of the players remains to be seen.

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