At present the winners of the four regional “Shields” – the Irish, Scottish/Italian, South African and Welsh – are guaranteed a place in Europe’s premier competition, along with the four other teams who finish in the highest places. This season there is a strong possibility that the highest Welsh club – currently Scarlets – will finish outside the top eight. And if they do, the eighth-placed team in the league will be denied a Champions Cup place and have to compete in the Challenge Cup instead.
Either Glasgow or Edinburgh could well fall foul of that arrangement this season, given their present precarious placings of sixth and seventh respectively. If something similar happens at the end of the 2022-23 campaign, Anayi believes there will be an agreement to adopt a purely merit-based system instead.
“We all entered into [the current system] knowing that you might get these discrepancies from a sporting integrity point of view,” he said. “Which is why we put a two-year review in. We said after two years if we get into this situation twice, it’s highly likely – although it needs to be unanimous – that we would then revert to a straight top eight going through regardless of where you’re from.”
With two rounds of the regular season to go, viewing figures for the URC have already surpassed last season’s, thanks in part to expanded free-to-air broadcasting of matches. But Anayi acknowledged that expansion had come at a price, with clubs and supporters in Scotland and Wales being unhappy with some kick-off times, in particular those on Saturday nights.
“Because we’ve got free-to-air broadcasts, there’s a trade-off. They have very fixed times when they can put live rugby on, and that tends to dictate those kick-off times being Friday evening or Saturday evening.
“Kick-off times do need to improve, certainly in Wales but also in Scotland. We listened to some of the feedback from Edinburgh and Glasgow, who said they didn’t want to play all of their games on Saturday evening. So we put some of those into Friday.”
Meanwhile, Anayi believes that a women’s version of the URC – although not necessarily with 16 teams – should be established as quickly as feasible. But he did want that, as his own organisation could not fund it, such a move would be dependent on the support of the various national governing bodies.
“It feels like we should have a women’s competition,” he said. “What’s really important here is what our unions are doing, what are their plans, and how can we help generate a better professional environment like they are doing in England with the Allianz Premier 15s.
“We’re trying to work out how we bring that about. Does it need to be 16 teams? Probably not.
“Should we get it going sooner rather than later? Yes, I think we should. I think the women’s game deserves that.
“I think we can pull together a really great competition. That needs to be in conjunction with what unions and clubs would like to achieve, because it’s going to take their funding to bring it to fruition. There’s definitely a will. We’d love to see a women’s URC and we’re just exploring how that comes about.”