URC chief Martin Anayi has no issue with Emerging Ireland tour during season as he defends Qatar link-up



United Rugby Championship (URC) chief Martin Anayi says he is not concerned about the IRFU’s plan to schedule an Emerging Ireland tour of South Africa during the competition.

imon Easterby will take a squad of 35 players to play in the Toyota Challenge in Bloemfontein, with the games against the Griquas, the Pumas and the Cheetahs clashing with rounds three and four of the URC.

Anayi believes that frontline internationals will be available for the fixtures, but with the squad likely to feature the players who took on the Maori All Blacks during the recent tour of New Zealand, the provinces will likely be discommoded by the new event.

And he said the URC is working on developing a cup competition to fill the development gap that exists since the competition shrunk itself to an 18-game season.

“We’ve looked at that because there’s actually a good rationale for them doing that tour,” Anayi said at the tournament launch this morning.

“What’s been explained to me is that it’s not the international players or first-rankers, it’s the next crop.

“The fear was because in those (URC) matches the first rankers are going to be playing that perhaps this group that’s going on tour wouldn’t get enough game time and that was a concern to the IRFU.

“I understand that because part of what URC was about was trying to make games of a higher quality. We always talked about having a cup competition, which would be perfect for that rationale of bringing players through and giving them game time.

“We weren’t able to bring that to fruition this year. If we had put the cup competition on, they wouldn’t have had a need to go and do this tour. Because we didn’t, they’re going and doing this tour.

“Does that impact the URC? Hopefully not, because the first-ranked players are playing in the URC games. That’s what the URC is all about.”

The URC has a new title sponsor in Indian tyre company BKT, while this week, it launched a partnership with Qatar Airways, which could lead to pre-season games being played in the Gulf state that next month hosts the FIFA World Cup.

That tournament has brought Qatar’s human rights and equality record into sharp focus, but Anayi was unperturbed by the partnership with the state-owned flag carrier.

“Our view around these issues, obviously we ask the right questions I hope and try to be as positive as possible,” he said.

“Qatar Airways was voted the world’s best airline, it means a lot to a lot of people. All through Covid, it has become an airline which they grew from four planes to 300 aircraft.

“It’s about growth, it’s not just about being in the Middle East, it’s worldwide. It ties with our own ambitions of being global and having an appeal. It’s a premium carrier and we want to be more premium.

“At the same time, what they can take from a partnership with a rugby competition is that we stand for great values and stand for championing those values. They are about legacy post FIFA World Cup in December.

“What do they do after that and can rugby and its values be part of that conversation going forward. Rugby has never been that in Qatar and the Middle East.

“I think rugby is a really positive voice in that conversation. I lived in the Middle East for my whole childhood, my dad is an Arab, he’s from Iran. I understand the cultures are different. My mum’s Irish, so I understand they’re very different.

“I think rugby and western values around rugby especially are more pertinent than ever in the Middle East. And they are open to having those conversations around progress and sport is a big part of that conversation of how they progress, how they’re seen to be progressive, and I hope we can be part of that.”

Although it had been reported regular season games could be played in Qatar, Anayi said it was more likely that pre-season tournaments and exhibition games would take place there.

“I think it’s a process actually, and I know that sounds super corny,” he said.

“Our championship games and Champions Cup games are so important to our clubs and the fans of those clubs. To take any of those games away from a home crowd is really difficult.

“We’ve had this conversation around do you take games to the US, which is slightly less challenging logistically or from a conceptual points of view as there have already been games in the US.

“It’s going to be really hard to take a championship game there, but can you take baby steps?

“Can we have winter training camps like football have in Qatar? Can you take pre-season matches to the air-conditioned stadiums and take full advantage of the legacy they want to achieve there? Can you set up new competitions? I don’t know. Can you help Qatar rugby?

“The ex-captain of Qatar who I met two days ago is from Newport, remarkably. As a Welshman living in Qatar, he sees that across the whole of the Middle East, there is a burgeoning relationship with rugby, but Qatar is behind and there’s a whole lot more we can do to support them.”



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