More South African clubs could look to join the newly expanded Guinness PRO14 in years to come if the addition of the Cheetahs and Southern Kings is a success.
That’s the implicit message from tournament organisers, and Springbok insiders, after it was finally confirmed the two former Super Rugby sides will be part of the new seasons’ competition.
Martin Anayi, Guinness PRO14 chief executive, says the agreement of the new structures within three months is an ‘astonishing achievement’, and immediately looked to the future of the competition.
A US based franchise is expected to come on board, but the Irish Examiner understand other South African clubs are watching developments with interest.
“The arrival of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings marks a bold and exciting new chapter for the Guinness PRO14 as a global rugby Championship,” Anayi said. “As a country, South Africa is a rugby powerhouse of over 55 million people. These teams already operate to the high standards demanded by Super Rugby and they will add to the quality of our tournament.
“Expansion is in the DNA of the Championship and ever since the Celtic League kicked off in 2001 Cross Border competition has thrived.
“This is a natural evolution for the Championship and not only will the calibre of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings grow audiences, interest and the commercial base for the tournament and our clubs, it is a move that also lays the foundations for years to come.”
The two South African teams as well as the SA Union were naturally positive about the development, and there was optimism at home too.
Ulster Rugby’s Shane Logan gave an enthusiastic welcome to the newly-formatted competition, with the CEO eager to build on the province’s strong existing links with South African rugby.
“We have 11 home games and 10 away this season, and we’ve in a very exciting pool,” he said.
“We’re excited to welcome the South Africans here, they’ve captured our hearts and our emotions, we’ve had more South Africans playing for us than any other team in the PRO12, so we know the quality of rugby, and the excitement they bring, and we’re excited it now moves on to a new level.
"We know where the players are coming from, and many of our favourites have come from that area.
“Arguably one of the greatest rugby schools in the world, Grey College, is in that area, and that’s where Ruan Pienaar comes from. We know it brings abrasive, fast open rugby so we look forward to battling with our own South Africans and against them in coming years.”
Ulster are expected to visit Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth, and welcome the Cheetahs to Kingspan Stadium.
Leinster are in Conference B with Ulster, and boss Leo Cullen said that while the rejig will take some getting used to, it should be close to business as usual.
“There’s some very exciting trips ahead, to South Africa, and the players will be able to test themselves in a different environment, it’s great for the game,” he said.
“I’m sure there’ll be a few teething problems that will have to be ironed out in terms of logistics, but it’s exciting. I’ve watched a bit of the two teams, those teams will really progress in the tournament.
“The format can be a little bit confusing, but we’ll be home and away in our own Conference, that’s 12 games, then we play the other Irish teams in the other conference home and away, so that’s as it has always been, then the other five teams either home or away. It’s 21 games, one less, then you’re matched up with the teams in your own conference in terms of points.
“It’ll take a bit of getting used to, but it’s a similar format in many ways. The main difference is you play five of the teams only home or away.”
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