The details of the newly restructured Guinness Pro 14 have been confirmed.
South African teams Southern Kings and the Cheetahs will join the competition from the start of the new 2017-18 season.
The 14 teams will be split into two conferences of 7, each featuring 2 Irish sides, 2 Welsh, 1 Scot, 1 Italian and 1 South African team.
Sides will play each other home and away in their own conference and then the teams in the other conference either home or away.
There will also be two additional rounds of derby matches, keeping what organisers describe as the 'sacrosanct' Irish and Welsh derbies. Each sides will retain six derbies each.
The top 3 in each conference will reach the quarter-final.
Glasgow Warriors (Scotland)
Cardiff Blues (Wales)
Zebre Rugby Club (Italy)
Toyota Cheetahs (South Africa)
Benetton Rugby (Italy)
Southern Kings (South Africa)
Each team will have 21 regular season games and play each other at least once.
For the first time, quarter-finals will be played, with six teams (three from each conference) reaching that stage and the top three teams from each conference will also qualify for Champions Cup.
The team with the highest points total outside of those six teams across both conferences will claim the final Champions Cup place.
The South African clubs will not be eligible to qualify for EPCR tournaments at present including the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup.
Martin Anayi, CEO of the Guinness PRO14, welcomed both clubs to the Championship and described it as an historic chapter for the tournament as it begins the first phase of expansion.
“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.
“Our Unions and World Rugby are committed to broadening the game and this move is evidence of our ambition to lead the way in growing the club game beyond our own borders, which in turn will unlock the true potential of this tournament. Expansion is in the DNA of the Championship and ever since the Celtic League kicked off in 2001 Cross Border competition has thrived.
“Being based across some of the most renowned hotbeds of rugby, the Championship has always been rife with international talent and last season we saw 270 internationals appear in the Guinness PRO12. Since then another 25 made their Test debuts in June while 27 of our players were on duty with the British & Irish Lions in New Zealand.
“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 appeal of professional club rugby has never been greater and we aim to be at the forefront of the game’s growth around the world,” Anayi said.
“These are bold steps but the encouragement from our shareholder unions, our sponsors, our broadcasters and World Rugby – has shown that there is an appetite for innovation, fresh stories and new rivalries. The new tournament structure will also provide more teams with the opportunity to reach the Guinness PRO14 Final Series and that is fantastic news for our players, coaches and fans.
“To achieve this within three months is an astonishing achievement by everyone involved. I would like to thank Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby, and his colleagues in South Africa for their hard work and vision. For everyone involved this is a golden opportunity to do something unique within the game of rugby and it is fantastic that they share the same ambitions as our unions and teams.
“Last season’s figures showed that we are the home of Positive Play and now the Guinness PRO14 will be one of the most unique and diverse rugby tournaments in the world.”
Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby, said the decision to accept an invitation to play in the northern hemisphere competition was a ground-breaking move that added a whole new dimension to the South African season.
“This development is as exciting as the launch of Super Rugby itself back in 1996,” said Roux. “It marks the start of a new adventure for rugby in South Africa with a number of exciting opportunities. It will not be without its challenges in aligning with a competition in a different part of the calendar and in very different playing conditions; but it is also a fantastic opportunity for South African rugby to widen our rugby horizons.
“This time next year South African provincial teams will be competing in 11 countries on five continents. We believe the Toyota Cheetahs’ and Kings’ participation will be good for the competition and good for the teams.”
Harold Verster, CEO of the Toyota Cheetahs, believes that both clubs will be viewed as “trail blazers” as they make their preparations to compete in the Guinness PRO14.
“There will be a steep learning curve for our coaches and players but we’re in it to win it. This is a whole new ball game for rugby in South Africa and we’re proud to be trail blazers. There is a lot of excitement around the union about the opportunity and we’re already looking forward to kick off,” Verster said.
“We’re excited about taking the Toyota Cheetahs’ famous brand of all-out attacking rugby to Europe and bringing top European clubs to South Africa. The Free State is one of the great nurseries of rugby in South Africa and this is an exciting prospect for our young players – to test themselves against top players from the northern hemisphere.”
Andre Rademan, president of the Eastern Province Rugby Union, said: “We have been through tough times on and off the field over recent years but we now have the chance to reclaim our status as one of the powerhouses of South African rugby.
“The Southern Kings have been on an upward playing curve this season and there is much to be excited about. This team represents the heartlands of black rugby in South Africa – a tradition stretching back to the very establishment of the game in this country – and we will bring a unique passion and flavour to the tournament.”
Bill Beaumont, World Rugby, Chairman said: “Following consideration of PRO14’s submission, including strategic goals and evaluation of the global rugby benefits, the World Rugby EXCO was unanimous in approving expansion.
“This approval was granted under the proviso that key strategic conditions will be met. This includes the implementation of a detailed player welfare plan, which we are delighted PRO14 are fully committed to. We look forward to the beginning of an exciting new chapter in the competition’s history.”
TRAVEL AND PLAYER WELFARE
In order to provide travelling teams to South Africa with the best possible preparation, games will be fixed for Saturdays. This will allow visiting teams to have a seven-day turnaround leading into these fixtures including five ‘clean days’ that do not involve any travel.
Flights between Europe and South Africa are overnight which will allow players to rest during the journey while training facilities and accommodation venues are up to the standards expected in Super Rugby.
For teams who are scheduled to play twice in South Africa, the aim will be for them to 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.
Martin Anayi, CEO of the Guinness PRO14, added: “Our clubs, players and coaches are already excited about the opportunity to play in South Africa in front of new crowds, new stadiums and take on these exciting new tests.
“From a logistical point of view, we know that travelling long distance will be nothing unusual to the South African sides, and indeed our core international players, but it is a new departure for our clubs. As such we have been in a dialogue with performance directors across all participating unions to ensure that player welfare is not compromised.
“We will work closely with travel partners to ensure that players are provided the best possible times and conditions when flying to and from South Africa to make sure their preparation is unaffected.
“In addition, we will welcome members of SA Rugby’s Premier Panel of full-time referees who will join our stable of elite officials.
The 2017/18 season will bring the Guinness PRO14 to new destinations, create more competition and present more vibrancy than ever before on a journey we believe is only just beginning.”