The South African Rugby Union has, as expected, voted to explore entering the four Super Rugby franchises into an expanded Guinness Pro16 as well as retaining a place in a revised Sanzaar competition.
The decision was taken by the 13 voting member unions of SARU at a specially convened meeting, according to a Union statement, to "potentially make the transition of the existing Super Rugby franchises – the Vodacom Bulls, the Emirates Lions, the Cell C Sharks and the DHL Stormers" into an expanded Pro16.
“The new direction was determined by the SARU General Meeting as it is the highest authority in rugby,” added the statement. “Among other things, it has responsibility for the ‘approval or the amendment and rescission of any decision regarding the format, structure, competition rules and composition of SARU’s major senior domestic competition currently known as the Currie Cup or its successor as well as determining the SA teams to participate in Super Rugby competitions by special resolution.’
“The meeting rejected the first option of remaining in a Pro14 format and leaving four franchises to engage in potential successor Sanzaar domestic formats,” added the statement, meaning they were against maintaining two teams in a Pro14, namely the Cheetahs and another franchise to replace the Southern Kings, who have gone into liquidation.
"SA Rugby would now accelerate preliminary conversations with PRO Rugby Championship DAC on SA Rugby's representation in the competition. PRO Rugby Championship DAC is the owner of Pro14 and is a joint venture between the rugby unions of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy. "
Although the South African proposal has not, it is understood, been addressed formally at boardroom level by Celtic Rugby DAC, they will undoubtedly be equally receptive to the idea. This will most likely see the four Super Rugby franchises brought into the fold at some juncture in 2021 – not least in fulfilling television deals – in some form of hybrid competition before a full Pro16 takes off in the 2021-22 season.
Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby, said the meeting and options had been presented as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the unilateral decision by the New Zealand Rugby Union to proceed with a domestic or trans-Tasman competition.
Roux said New Zealand’s decision made it impossible to deliver the 14-team Vodacom Super Rugby competition that had been agreed by the partners and for which five-year broadcasting agreements had been signed.
“Our members are excited about the prospect of closer alignment with PRO Rugby Championship and seeking a northern hemisphere future, but we would not have been taking this decision but for actions elsewhere,” said Roux.
SARU suggested the Cheetahs could be accommodated in a modified Super Rugby competition as well as a revamped, eight-team Currie Cup Premier Division and a new 14-team, domestic Cup competition.
"The General Meeting also opted to continue conversations with Sanzaar about entering a team into a modified "Super Series" format, on the proviso that a commercial model was developed to make their entry cost neutral at least, once agreement had been reached with Sanzaar. The meeting agreed that the Toyota Cheetahs would be proposed as the South African entry to such a competition."
The Cheetahs have maintained all along that they are contracted to participate in the Pro14, which is worth €1.5 million to the franchise, until the end of the 2022-23 and have sought legal advice.
A statement by Harold Verster, Managing Director of the Free State Cheetahs, said they will be reviewing their options.
“The implications of the business model have to be assessed and the board will decide on the way forward. The local competitions are exciting and offers a good prospect because of the fact that it is a competition that all 14 South-African franchises will be taking part in after which a Currie Cup double round, home and away, will take place with all eight teams. Free State Rugby will review all implications and thereafter determine the way forward.”
Mark Alexander, SA Rugby president, thanked the membership for its deliberations and the outcomes.
“These are extraordinary times, if this had been an ordinary year, we would not have had this meeting,” he said. “But we needed to take radical steps to avoid financial meltdown because of the Covid-19 crisis.”
Roux said that SA Rugby remained committed to the Sanzaar partnership and participation in the Castle Lager Rugby Championship. “We will advise our Sanzaar partners of the General Meeting’s decision,” Roux said. “We remain part of the joint venture and will pursue the ‘Super Series’ discussions in good faith.”