Pro14: Could greater South African involvement see competition expand?

The dust has barely settled on the end to the Pro14’s disrupted and shortened regular season, but eyes have already turned to the competition’s immediate and long-term future.

Among the stronger prospects in the long-term lies the possibility of World Cup-winning South Africa captain Siya Kolisi taking on Ireland’s Johnny Sexton and Wales’ most-capped player Alun Wyn Jones outside the Test arena.

The 2020-21 Pro14 campaign will begin in October with 12 teams, with the intention – or is it faint hope? – that South African teams will return in the early months of next year, after it was announced Southern Kings and Cheetahs could not travel for the rest of 2020,

Legalities and logistics notwithstanding, even that plan could be superseded by Kings and Cheetahs being jettisoned in favour of the nation’s four other leading teams.

The impact of Covid-19 on rugby’s geo-politics has already set the scene for such an eventuality.

Neither Cheetahs nor Kings seem to be in the favoured category, even if the former have earned respect for their efforts against teams from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy.

When the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby was cut from 18 to 14 teams in 2017, SA rugby’s Kings and Cheetahs were the ones to lose out before being welcomed into the what became the Pro14 fold.

In recent months, New Zealand has set out plansexternal-link for its own future path, which does not involve Bulls, Lions, Stormers and Sharks.

With the top English and French leagues self-contained and involving promotion and relegation, the Pro14’s historically flexible approach leads to a fairly obvious conclusion: South Africa’s leading teams have a future home to go to.

It is also one that would avoid the energy-sapping jetlag involved in flying to and from games in Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand.

Fixture schedules, broadcasting and sponsorship deals will be the nuts and bolts to secure that future structure, subjects that are forever on the agendas of the sport’s powerbrokers.

But they are not alone.

Thinus Delport
Former Springbok Thinus Delport has worked as a pundit since his playing retirement

Thinus Delport can count himself among rugby’s globe-trotters, with his talents earning Springbok honours and leading to stints at Worcester, Gloucester and Kobe Steelers in Japan.

As a UK-based pundit, the former full-back and wing is disappointed Cheetahs and Kings’ season came to an unfortunate end and sympathises with all who have grafted to keep those teams alive via the Pro14.

However, Delport hopes his compatriots – and those they negotiate with – will seize the opportunity to fully align their interests with the northern hemisphere.

“I’m one of the supporters of seeing South African rugby playing in the northern hemisphere,” Delport told BBC Sport Wales.

“The New Zealanders clearly made it clear where their future lies and it’s not including South Africa or Argentina.

“With the historic relations with the northern hemisphere and existing South African playing base over here in the northern hemisphere, for me that’s the natural move.

“Timeline-wise it’s also much easier to work on it; similar timeframes and for me that’s where the South African future, a strong part of it lies.

“There has been a lot of talk around the big four South African sides aligning a lot closer with the northern hemisphere and being included in an expanded Pro14 or Pro12 as it is (at the start of) next season.

“So hopefully that’s still on the case and things are moving forward for South Africa to be part of that.”

South Africa in the Six Nations?

Delport goes even further, hoping the Springboks will also eventually make the leap into what is now the Six Nations.

“It’s so difficult for travelling crowds from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand – with South African travellers going to New Zealand or Australia to support the Springboks in the Rugby Championship.

“The existing player or supporter-base that is over here [UK], there are a lot of South Africans living over here so it certainly, commercially, would mean a lot to South African supporters if they can watch the Springboks play over here on a much more regular basis.”

Former England hooker Richard Cockerill, Edinburgh’s head coach in the Pro14, also backs such developments.

As he reacted to Kings and Cheetahs’ situation, the ex-Leicester boss made no secret he would love to pit his team and his coaching ability against even stronger South African sides.

“If moving forward, as has been suggested, we have the other four Super Rugby franchises join the Pro16 or Pro18 or whatever it may end up being, that would be strong,” Cockerill said.

“I can see the South African connection with Europe.

“If that does happen with the Pro14, you can see South Africa joining the Six or Seven Nations and how good would that be if we had the Springboks playing in that tournament and we had their provincial teams playing against us in the league?

“I think it was a bold move, very much worth doing and I think it will open up a passageway for things to expand due to what’s happened with Super Rugby.”

BBC Sport Wales’ Gareth Griffiths analyses developments surrounding the Pro14:

Will it be Pro12, Pro14 or Pro16 next season?

After the news Cheetahs and Southern Kings will not travel for the rest of 2020, tournament organisers are now working on different scenarios.

This could include seeing South African sides joining the 2020-21 season early next year or playing the tournament with the 12 sides they start with if travelling restrictions still dictate.

One plan is to play 11 rounds from October up until Christmas with each team from Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy facing each other once. If South African teams still can’t travel in 2021, they could just reverse fixtures for the European teams in the new year.

So league bosses hope they can still play fixtures against the South African sides next year as part of the 2020-21 season.

An adventurous plan being discussed is to introduce the four Super Rugby sides – Sharks, Bulls, Lions and Stormers – into the Pro14 to become a Pro16 possibly at the expense of Cheetahs and Southern Kings.

Cheetahs, especially, would not be happy with that.

This could even happen as early as 2020-21, with the South African sides playing each other in fixtures in late 2020 before facing the European sides in 2021 in the same campaign.

BBC News