Pro14 league takes South African leap of faith
Inclusion of Southern Kings and Toyota Cheetahs broadly welcomed by provinces
Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, home of the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth. Photograph: Richard Huggard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
Fourteen teams, two conferences of seven, three from each qualifying for the playoffs, 21 matches and the presence of two South African franchises, the Southern Kings and the Toyota Cheetahs provides a numerical tickertape of a newly minted Guinness Pro14 tournament. The tournament starts in the first week of September.
Over the next week or so the broadcasting rights holders, Sky Sports, TG4, BBC Northern Ireland, BBC Alba, BBC Wales, S4C and a South African broadcaster will meet to thrash out their preferences in match terms before a definitive fixture list for the 2017-2018 season will be announced.
In general terms the clubs will play the six other teams in their conference (12 matches), all seven in the other conference either home or away while, specifically referring to the Irish provinces, they will have two additional derby fixtures against the provinces in the other conference.
In essence there are only five matches where the Irish provinces face the lottery of a home or away match and even at this stage, Leinster were able to reveal that they will have 10 home matches next season while Ulster confirmed that the Kingspan stadium will host 11 games in the conference format. Those figures will be reversed for the following season.
The Welsh clubs are in an identical position while the Scottish, Italian and South African clubs will play an additional derby fixture. There will be some misgivings that the relative strength of the four Irish provinces renders those matches tougher relatively than some of the say some of the other national squabbles.
What is evident is that teams will have a three in seven chance in the new Pro14 of making the playoffs as opposed to a four in 12 opportunity in the old Pro12 format.
The composition of the conferences was decided by national rankings with Conference A containing three number one ranked teams, Munster (Ireland 1), Glasgow Warriors (Scotland 1) and Toyota Cheetahs (South Africa 1), while Conference B has only two in the Scarlets (Wales 1) and Benetton Treviso (Italy 1).
The constituents of the conferences will change on a yearly basis based on the final ranking positions in the Pro14 but the make-up by nationality will be unaltered; two Irish, two Welsh and one apiece from Scotland, Italy and South Africa.
Fixtures for those teams travelling to South Africa will be fixed for Saturdays, guaranteeing a seven-day turnaround leading into these fixtures including five ‘clean days’ that do not involve any travel.
For teams scheduled to play twice in South Africa, the proposal is that they play back-to-back games on a ‘mini-tour’ in one round trip. Where the fixture list prevents this, games in South Africa for those clubs “will be spread across a reasonable period of time,” according to the release.
The reaction amongst the Irish provinces has been broadly positive.
Munster CEO Garrett Fitzgerald, a member of the board of Celtic Rugby involved in fine-tuning the details of the tournament, explained: “This is an exciting time for club rugby as we expand our cross-border tournament from Italy, Ireland, Scotland and Wales into a cross-hemisphere competition with the introduction of two South African sides.
“Moving into an established rugby environment is significant for the expansion of this tournament and we look forward to experiencing new cultures and playing environments as we embark on a new era for this unique rugby competition.”
His Ulster counterpart Shane Logan was equally supportive of the new venture. He also confirmed that the province was looking to recruit a new outhalf in the absence of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding and expected to make an announcement in that regard in the short term.
As things stand Les Kiss has Peter Nelson, Johnny McPhillips, Brett Herron and a couple of recent schoolboy prospects in Angus Curtis and Michael Lowry to cover that role. Logan said: “We have been looking at recruitment in the flyhalf position as we do with all key positions for over a year.
“We have had our radar out there. Now this is a difficult time of the year to recruit when everyone is in contract [but] we will be optimistic of making a positive announcement sooner rather than later.”
Talking about the Pro14 he enthused: “It is entirely consistent with what we have been trying to do which is to bring the best players, the best teams and the most exciting rugby here. The addition of the South Africans takes us another stride to a good, strong level.
“We have a very exciting pool and we are delighted to welcome two South African sides here. The South Africans have captured our hearts and our emotions; we have more South Africans playing for us than any other team in the Pro12.
“We know the quality of rugby, we know the excitement it brings and we are delighted that the Pro14 product moves forward strongly onto a different level. The strategy is to have world class rugby here and to have Ulster competing at the top end of that. We don’t see the growth ending here,” the last sentiment a reference to the potential future addition of two North American franchises to the tournament.
Leinster coach Leo Cullen, speaking at an open training session in Arklow, said: “There are some very exciting trips ahead to South Africa. The players will be able to test themselves in a different environment. There will be a few teething problems that will have to be ironed out in terms of logistics in the competition but overall I think it is a hugely exciting prospect.
“We clearly know that we have everyone home and away in our own conference so that’s our 12 games. We will play the Irish teams in the other conference home and away so that’s as it has always been over the last number of years and then you have the other five teams you are going to play either home or away.
“You’ll get matched up in terms of points with who is in your own conference. The only difference is that you’ll play five of the teams home or away but apart from that it is as you were before.”
The South African sides will not be eligible to qualify for the Champions Cup, the seven places going to the top three teams in each conference and the best fourth placed team between the two.