The Guinness PRO14 will be wound up in March with a new “Rainbow Cup” to hansel in the four new South African franchises at the tail end of the current season.
The current league campaign will close after 16 rounds with the two conference leaders contesting a final at the home of the leading team. Rankings for next season’s European competitions will be confirmed by the final placings in the new shortened season.
Thereafter the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers – previously South Africa’s four Super Rugby franchises – will join the existing 12 teams from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Italy in a new competition kicking off on April 17.
This will also be a two-pool competition, with a final between the pool winners set for June 19. That’s only a week before the scheduled pre-tour test by the British and Irish Lions against Japan at BT Murrayfield.
‘An innovative solution’
Martin Anayi, CEO of PRO14 Rugby, called the new arrangement “an innovative solution to partner with South African rugby ahead of the British & Irish Lions tour”.
“It was vital that we worked with all parties to ensure our 12 teams had a clear road towards European qualification,” he said.
“With a Lions tour in South Africa to come it is hard to think of anything better to whet the appetite than the best players from the Celtic regions competing against World Cup-winning Springboks in the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup.”
PRO16 moving forward?
This arrangement allows the Celtic nations and Italy to maintain their partnership with South Africa. It also means jettisoning both the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings, but it’s unclear whether this is a template for a “PRO16” partnership moving forward.
Seven rounds of games will be played leading to the Rainbow Cup final. With the previous 16 rounds of PRO14 matches, it makes for roughly the same size of season as was planned.
It also clears up the grey area of European qualification for the existing PRO14 teams, at least for 2020-21.
With both Scottish clubs way off the pace of their conference leads it means Heineken Champions Cup places are their sole realistic target for the rest of the season.