Natal Sharks and another South African side to join Pro 14

McGrath must hit ‘fitness markers’ if he is to direct Leinster against Racing in Champions Cup

 Leinster’s Luke McGrath:  he  must prove the ankle damage sustained against  Saracens  has healed sufficiently.  Photograph: Alex Davidson/Inpho

Leinster’s Luke McGrath: he must prove the ankle damage sustained against Saracens has healed sufficiently. Photograph: Alex Davidson/Inpho

 

The Natal Sharks and a second South African side are set to join the Guinness Pro 14 in 2019/20. Having become increasingly disillusioned with the Super Rugby conference format and the time zone disadvantages, SA Rugby could have five teams competing in Europe come the 2020/21 season.

The Bulls, Lions or the Cape Town-based Stormers are due to join Natal, the Cheetahs and Southern Kings from 2019.

The Pro 14 hinted at further expansion into South Africa by recently adding SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus to its board.

“I am looking forward to working even closer together with our friends from Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Italy as rugby moves closer to a global calendar, and the game becomes even more accessible to new and untapped markets,” said Roux.

The move also signals a genuine attempt to save the Springboks from becoming a second-tier nation as it would significantly stem the flood of young talent currently joining French and English clubs.

Of course what really matters is the bottom line, and this represents an endorsement of Pro 14 chief executive Martin Anayi’s stated goal of increasing the competition’s revenue streams.

Television income has risen from €13.5 million to around €25 million, with a new broadcasting deal seeing paid-for provider Premier Sports taking over the rights for next season. The imminent introduction of three South African sides has been factored into that three-year contract.

From next season Eir Sport will show six live Pro 14 matches every weekend.

In reaction to what increasingly looks like the South African sides’ departure from Super Rugby, last week a SANZAAR document outlining plans to add an American conference was leaked to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Ankle damage

Meanwhile, Luke McGrath must hit “fitness markers” if the scrumhalf is to direct Leinster around Bilbao’s San Mamés stadium during the Champions Cup final on Saturday (4.45pm kickoff).

McGrath must prove the ankle damage sustained during the 30-19 toppling of Saracens on April 1st has sufficiently healed, and he resumed light training last week.

Leinster always run their starting XV at Tuesday’s training session, so should the 25-year-old break down New Zealander Jamison Gibson-Park is poised to retain the nine jersey. That comes with the domino effect of James Lowe – another Kiwi project player – being confined to the stand once again. Leinster can only pick two non-EU qualified players in their squad, and Wallaby blindside Scott Fardy has proved vital to the cause.

The Lowe/McGrath situation opens the door for Jordan Larmour to come straight into the team.

Fergus McFadden is still nursing a hamstring wound sustained scoring a try in the defeat of the Scarlets on April 21st.

McFadden is not the only senior figure facing a race against time. Rhys Ruddock will also put his constantly strained limbs through similar “markers” this week in a bid to squeeze into the match day squad. The Ireland captain on last summer’s unbeaten tour of USA and Japan pulled his hamstring against Saracens.

Number eight

Ulster-bound Jordi Murphy is expected to get over the leg injury that forced him out of the Connacht defeat, but if either backrow fails to make it Jack Conan will start at number eight. Conan may yet command a starting berth regardless of the well-being of Ruddock or Murphy.

Leinster’s opponents Racing 92 – in their second final in three seasons – have already lost scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud. The 2016 French champions secured second place in the Top 14 over the weekend with a 42-13 victory over Agen.

All roads do lead to Bilbao, but Munster are waiting in the long grass.

The Pro 14 semi-final on May 19th will definitely take place at the RDS as the Aviva stadium is hosting a mini rugby festival (Ulster face the Ospreys in a Champions Cup qualifier at 3.05pm in the Kingspan stadium on Sunday, May 20th).

The FA Cup final between Manchester United and Chelsea starts two hours after Leinster versus Munster match.

“We’ll have to bring our best against the best team in Europe or we will be embarrassed,” said Munster captain Peter O’Mahony after the 20-16 victory over Edinburgh in Limerick.

Zebo’s farewell

Saturday marked Simon Zebo’s farewell to Thomond Park, with the Ireland international sparking Munster’s underwhelming performance to life with a magnificent line break and pass to create Keith Earls’ try.

“Our attack needs to improve if we want to take down the Leinsters of this world,” Zebo told Sky Sports. “I can’t wait. It will be very difficult. They’ve been incredibly impressive this year; they are like an international side, there’s no weaknesses in their team.

“I think the attack is probably going to win this game. Hopefully Racing do a job on them and make them a bit sore for the week after!”

When asked if a return to Munster is possible after the two-year deal with Racing 92, the 28-year-old responded: “I couldn’t do it justice by saying how much I’ll actually miss it, but [returning] will never be written off.

“Growing up as a Munster man, to get the opportunity to represent your home province, there’s nothing like it. Obviously I’ve been very lucky and blessed to be able to do it for the length of time I did, but hopefully it’s not the end.”

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