After months of speculation, confusion and disbelief, the structures and makeup of the new Guinness PRO14 competition have finally been settled on, and gleefully revealed by Celtic Rugby and the South African Rugby Union.
The new competition includes former Super Rugby sides the Southern Kings and Toyota Cheetahs, as the format changes from a 12 team regular home-and-away league to a two conference setup.
As expected, each conference has seven teams; made up of two Irish provinces, two Welsh, and one team each from Scotland, Italy and South Africa.
The conferences were created with rankings from last season’s finishing places, placing Munster, the losing PRO12 finalists, in Conference A with Connacht, while Leinster and Ulster are in Conference B.
Organisers hope the new format will make for more competitive games later into the season, with the old ‘top four’ play-off series replaced by a ‘top six’ setup, that sees the top team in each conference earn a home semi-final while the second and third teams play off for the other two semi-final places.
The top three clubs from each conference will also qualify for the Champions Cup, along with the team with the highest points total outside of those top six teams across both conferences. The remaining five former PRO12 teams will qualify for the Challenge Cup, with South African clubs not eligible to compete in EPCR tournaments.
The new structures necessitate a raft of changes to the previous setup, with teams playing one game fewer per season (21), while the amount of times each team play one another has also altered.
Take Munster for example, who are in a conference with Connacht, Ospreys, Cardiff Blues, Glasgow, Zebre and the Cheetahs.
Rassie Erasmus’ men will face those six teams home and away, but they will face ‘Conference B’ opposition just once – except the Irish provinces, who they will still play home and away – meaning they could have two trips to South Africa this season, and just one next season.
There will be no visit to Thomond Park for two or three of Scarlets, Dragons, Edinburgh, Treviso and Southern Kings.
The fixture list, usually revealed mid-July, will come out next week once broadcasters and clubs have been consulted.
One of the biggest question marks over the expansion has been how to fairly incorporate travel to and from South Africa.
All games played in Port Elizabeth and Bloemfontein will be fixed for Saturdays, in order to allow visiting teams a seven-day turnaround from their usual Friday night fixtures, with at least five days free from travel.
All flights from Europe will be overnight, to allow players sleep during the 10+ hour trip, while the organisers will endeavour to allow teams who have to play two games in South Africa to do so on a ‘mini tour’.
Simon Keogh, acting CEO of Rugby Players Ireland, says player welfare has been a key part in discussions all the way through the expansion process.
“Rugby Players Ireland has been working closely with IRFU in relation to the expansion of the PRO12,” he said. “All player welfare issues, particularly those in relation to travel and temperature, have been taken into consideration and, while further details will be finalised over the coming weeks, the newly-formatted competition will not compromise player welfare.”
Super Rugby players are not unaccustomed to such long haul travel, but it promises to be a challenge for some of Ireland’s non-international players.
“From a logistical point of view, we know that travelling long distance will be nothing unusual to the South African sides, and indeed our core international players, but it is a new departure for our clubs,” said Martin Anayi, CEO of the Guinness PRO14.
“As such we have been in a dialogue with performance directors across all participating unions to ensure that player welfare is not compromised.
“We will work closely with travel partners to ensure that players are provided the best possible times and conditions when flying to and from South Africa to make sure their preparation is unaffected.”
World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont, said his organisation were in unanimous agreement when it came to approving the cross-hemisphere expansion.
“This approval was granted under the proviso that key strategic conditions will be met,” he said.
“This includes the implementation of a detailed player welfare plan, which we are delighted PRO14 are fully committed to.
“We look forward to the beginning of an exciting new chapter in the competition’s history.”
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