Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup organisers have admitted defeat in their efforts to bring together northern hemisphere teams and the new South African franchises for their one-off competition due to public health restrictions.
The organisers on Wednesday announced their intention to abandon hopes of cross-hemisphere fixtures for the tournament which is set to start this weekend with in-country derby games in Ireland, Italy, Scotland, South Africa and Wales. Instead, the Rainbow Cup will now be run as two separate competitions with “northern” and “southern” elements.
The Rainbow Cup had been conceived as a way to introduce the four South African “Super” franchises to northern hemisphere competition ahead of next season’s planned expansion of the PRO14 to a PRO16 but now the Sharks, Stormers, Lions and Bulls will be playing amongst themselves while the 14 northern teams effectively re-run their 2020-21 season over six weeks with a final at the end.
“With no formal approvals in place to allow the South African teams to enter the UK & Ireland for their Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup fixtures, PRO14 Rugby and SA Rugby will operate dual tournaments with no cross-hemisphere fixtures,” the PRO14 Rainbow Cup statement read.
“Despite a colossal effort, the South African teams were not granted the permission to travel in time to allow the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup to be played as originally planned. Such challenges are not unique to rugby as many international sports have found the Covid-19 pandemic a difficult landscape to plan for.
“All options for the South African teams to travel to Europe safely were explored and exhausted by the league, this is due to the heightened restrictions caused by South Africa’s presence on the red list of the territories involved.”
The ‘northern’ Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup will still take place on the dates previously published with Ulster meeting Connacht in Belfast on Friday night followed by Leinster against Munster on Saturday evening with derbies remaining on schedule for rounds two and three.
Organisers said the fixtures for rounds four, five and six, for which the intention had been for the South African teams to travel north for matches will now have those South African teams removed.
The southern tournament will be known as Rainbow Cup SA and will be screened by the PRO14’s existing broadcasting rights holders.
Referring to efforts to stage cross-hemisphere fixtures before “all avenues were exhausted”, SA Rugby chief executive Jourie Roux said: “This is a huge disappointment, but time had simply run out.
“No stone was left unturned to try and find a solution to the challenges – including basing our teams for 10 days in locations in the Middle East or Europe. But the pieces of the jigsaw would not fall into place in time to allow us to put those plans into action.”
The statement also added that Wednesday’s decision “will have no impact on the long-term partnership between PRO14 Rugby and SA Rugby” with more details about those plans and league structure for the ground-breaking 2021/22 season onwards set to be made public shortly.