The Toyota Cheetahs and Southern Kings will kick off a new adventure for South African rugby in five weeks’ time when they become the newest members of the new-look Guinness PRO14 competition, it was confirmed on Tuesday.
The tournament – featuring the leading clubs of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy – has been expanded to incorporate two South African teams in a ground-breaking move into cross-hemisphere rugby.
The two South African franchises – which voluntarily withdrew from Vodacom Super Rugby participation in July – will play a schedule of 21 matches from September to the final on 26 May 2018.
In the season just ended, Rassie Erasmus’s Munster were defeated in the final by the Llanelli Scarlets of Wales, before a full house at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
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 significant as the launch of Vodacom 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 playing horizons.
“We’re very grateful to Guinness PRO12 for opening the door to entry to one of the world’s top competitions, featuring some of the game’s leading club teams. We believe the Toyota Cheetahs’ and Southern Kings’ participation will be good for the competition and good for the teams.
“This is a very exciting day for South African rugby as a whole and the Toyota Cheetahs and Southern Kings in particular.”
Martin Anayi, CEO of the Guinness PRO14, welcomed both clubs to the Championship and described it as an historic chapter for the tournament and also for the game of rugby union.
“The arrival of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings marks a bold and exciting new chapter for the Guinness PRO14 in its goal to become a world class, global rugby Championship,” Anayi said. “These are established clubs who already operate to the high standards demanded by Super Rugby and they will add to the quality of our tournament.
“Expanding the Championship into new territories is one of our key goals in order to grow the tournament and unlock its true potential. Since the inception of the Celtic League in 2001, the Championship has embraced the concept of cross-border competition in countries that are rife with international talent.
“Last season saw 270 internationals appear in the Championship, and since then another 25 have made their Test debuts while 27 of our players have been on duty with the British & Irish Lions on their tour to New Zealand.
“We are witnessing the natural evolution of the Championship and not only will the calibre of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings grow the audiences and revenue streams of the tournament and our clubs, it is a move that also lays the foundations for future expansion. The appeal of professional club rugby has never been greater and we want to play a leading role in in the growth of the game worldwide,” Anayi said.
The Southern Kings and Toyota Cheetahs will play a season of 21 league matches in the competition, with the aim of finishing in the top six to earn a place in the finals series.
The playing format is:
Each conference contains seven teams with an equal split of teams from each union
Every team will play every other team at least once
Italian, Scottish and South African teams will play an additional derby fixture to even out the schedule (e.g. the Toyota Cheetahs will play the Southern Kings three times)
The Guinness PRO14 Final Series will include quarter-finals allowing the top six clubs to reach the knock-out stages (teams 1-3 from each Conference)
The top three clubs from each conference (excluding SA teams) will qualify for the Champions Cup while the team with the highest points total outside of those six teams across both conferences will claim the final Champions Cup place.
The Conferences are:
Glasgow Warriors (SRU)
Cardiff Blues (WRU)
Zebre Rugby Club (FIR)
Toyota Cheetahs (SA Rugby)
Benetton Rugby (FIR)
Southern Kings (SA Rugby)
Harold Verster CEO of the Toyota Cheetahs said: “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.
“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: “The Kings 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.
“Under difficult conditions and against an unsettled off-field environment 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.”
The full fixture list will be issued by Guinness PRO14 in the near future.