The worst kept secret in rugby is out as the PRO14 has announced that we will be losing two South African sides and gaining four in a new look competition that will begin in April, acting as a ‘taster’ for the upcoming Lions Tour.
The Vodacom Bulls, Emirates Lions, Cell C Sharks and DHL Stormers will be included in a new, one-off competition called the Rainbow Cup beginning at the end of a shortened PRO14 season with the final concluding in June.
There will be a big asterix at however wins the final PRO14 campaign. After 16 rounds, the regular season will finish on March 20th with the final taking place on March 27th.
The final will consist of the top two teams in each conference with Munster seemingly with already one foot in it, sitting 12 points ahead of Connacht at the top of Conference B.
For Ulster, it’s a shootout with Leinster to win Conference A with the first fixture between the sides taking place on January 8th at the RDS. With Leinster imperious in the league at the minute having not dropped a point from the seven matches played, it’s hard to see their dominance changing any time soon so would require Ulster needing two wins to stand any sort of a chance of qualifying for the final.
In true PRO14 fashion, we don’t know who Ulster will be playing and on which gameweek, however PRO14 have announced that “the abbreviated fixture list will aim to ensure home and away in-conference matches are completed and each team plays all of its cross-conference matches”.
It seems that the league is intent on getting this season over and done with as quickly as possible in order to incorporate the South African sides. For 9/12 teams whose chances at qualifying for the final are next to non-existent, Champions Cup rugby qualification is the only other thing to play for.
The Rainbow Cup
Sounding like a trophy up for grabs in Mario Kart, The Rainbow Cup launches on April 17th. Teams will be split into two pools of seven with an equal number of representatives from each country in the two groups.
Unlike the PRO14, teams will only play one match against their pool opponent and none against teams from the other group with the top sides from each group facing off in a final on June 19th.
The league’s statement places a lot of emphasis on the South African sides’ big stars, something which the league dearly lacks due to the unavailability of the Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italian players during the Six Nations.
While it doesn’t explicitily say in the statement, it looks like this competition is a one off to get the South African sides involved in the build up to the Lions Tour.
The Lions reached three Super Rugby finals in a row from 2016-2018, topping the league in the regular season in 2017. The Bulls are the only South African side to win Super Rugby, winning it on three occasions in 2007 and then back to back 2009-10.
The FRU Reaction
Additional South African sides have been on the cards over the last number of years and nobody can argue that the league needs freshened up and someone to challenge Leinster’s dominance. If the addition of Cheetahs and Southern Kings three years ago was dipping the toe in the South African market, the league has fully committed by jumping in which will hopefully unlock a lot more money.
The remaining rounds of this competition are played during the Six Nations, which will favour the Irish sides and they appear nothing more than a tick box exercise in order to establish which sides qualify for the Champions Cup and which sides qualify for the Challenge Cup. Scarlets, Glasgow Warriors, Edinburgh, Benetton and Zebre were all heavily impacted by the Autumn Nations Cup and this doesn’t look to change as more rounds are shoe-horned into international weekends in an attempt to give the tournament credibility.
This season is struck off for exceptional circumstances but not getting the best players on the pitch for this league due to international rugby is what has held it back since its inception. If this changes then we will see a dramatic improvement in the quality of rugby from all sides and the South African sides will be a good addition.
With the league spread over six countries, I think this is a very ambitious plan to enact with the current COVID situation. South Africa are currently dealing with a mutated virus and a second wave as they account for more than 60% of daily new cases in sub-Saharan Africa according to the BBC. A lot can happen between now and April but with a travel ban in place from England to South Africa, there is a chance that there will be a few more twists and turns before this tournament starts.
Looking to beyond this season, The Cheetahs were competitive at home losing just six games in their three seasons in the league but I think the new teams will be able to go one step further and be competitive away from home. However my main worry is that the PRO14 will go down the same route as Super Rugby – continually adding more sides and producing a convoluted tournament structure that turns a lot of people away from the league.