MARTIN Anayi, the United Rugby Championship’s chief executive, yesterday played down the chances of holding league matches in either Qatar or the United States. But, following the announcement of a sponsorship deal between the 16-team league and Qatar Airlines, he insisted that pre-season games in the Middle Eastern country could well be on the cards, and that the URC’s European teams would find it beneficial to stop off in Qatar before or after fixtures in South Africa.

“They [Qatar] have got unbelievable facilities through the FIFA World Cup, and one of their big things is legacy and what happens post-World Cup,” he said. "They've got world-class medical facilities that we can use for recovery.

"Really, what they're saying is this is a transport hub for players, coaches and hopefully fans down to South Africa and back. From a high-performance point of view, you can do winter training down there as lots of football teams do, and if there's ever an opportunity to play exhibition matches we'd be open to doing that.

“It's very unlikely it'll be a competitive URC game, but you could imagine pre-season or exhibition games being played there. League matches are really important and quite scarce things for our teams.”

There would be an obvious appeal to the massive United States market if a derby between two of the URC’s four Irish clubs were to be played there. But Anayi was unequivocal in his dismissal of that prospect. "We've had opportunities in the past to take games out to the USA and we've chosen not to do that,” he said.

Speaking at the launch of the new URC season, which kicks off on Friday week when Glasgow visit Benetton, Anayi also revealed tentative plans for a new cup competition, to begin during next year’s Rugby World Cup. The initial hope was that English teams would be involved as well, but the current expectation is that only the 16 URC sides will participate. However, the obvious concern about Year One of any tournament, should it take place in late 2023, is that many of those sides could field B teams given their national teams’ involvement in the World Cup.

“We’ll probably play at the end of the World Cup, during knockouts,” the chief executive added. “That’s what we’re gunning for. Let’s get a cup competition in that window. Everyone seems pretty excited by that.”