Duncan Smith: Forget lockdown, Pro14 is going global

Eroni Sau scores a try for Edinburgh against South African side Southern Kings in the Pro 14 at BT Murrayfield. Picture: Bill Murray/SNSEroni Sau scores a try for Edinburgh against South African side Southern Kings in the Pro 14 at BT Murrayfield. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS
Eroni Sau scores a try for Edinburgh against South African side Southern Kings in the Pro 14 at BT Murrayfield. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS
Plan to bring in all South African provinces is being considered

With restrictions on activities and travel still in full effect due the pandemic lockdown, it appears the Guinness Pro14 is keen to press on with a mission of ever-expanding global expansion.

It has been reported that the remainder of South Africa’s professional franchises could leave the southern hemisphere en masse and join the Celtic-run cross-border championship

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It all seems a long time since the late 1990s, when the Scottish-Welsh League launched involving the Edinburgh Reivers and Glasgow Caledonian Reds – a first, though not exactly glamorous start to a regular professional league for the nations. One former coach once told me his back had never recovered from following the gruelling fortnightly coach trips to Ebbw Vale, Pontypridd and the like.

The Irish provinces came on board in 2001 and the competition has grown again, with Italian clubs Treviso and Aironi (who have since been replaced by Zebre) joining in 2010.

A major step forward came in 2017 when South African sides Cheetahs and Southern Kings left Super Rugby for the competition and a new two-conference system came into place.

Now reports first surfacing in the New Zealand Herald and since picked up in South Africa claim the other four – Sharks, Stormers, Bulls and Lions – are interested in joining sometime between 2021 and 2023. The suggestion is there would only be room for five South African teams to form a Pro18, which may put the under-performing Kings in jeopardy.

The recent announcement of investment company CVC’s £120 million investment in the Pro14, which amounts to a 27 per cent stake (equating to the same slice they are taking in the English Premiership), will be a lure and the top four South African sides would bring quality to a tournament which has also flirted with expansion into the North American market, which has been hit by the failure of Major League Rugby.

Back in 2017, upon the arrival of the Cheetahs and the Kings, Pro14 chief executive Martin Anayi said: “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.

“This is a natural evolution for the championship and not only will the calibre of the 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,”

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Money always talks and will do more than ever when rugby finally emerges from the current costly stasis, but question marks will be whether this would be a dilution too far of the Pro14’s brand and identity, not to mention the almost unthinkable complications of trans-hemispheric travel. And that’s without even factoring in continuing uncertainty regarding the ongoing 
coronavirus crisis.

Yet, The Scotsman understands that it is an option being considered by the Pro14 who, at the time of the CVC deal announcement, absorbed the Italian federation into the Celtic Rugby Ltd company which runs the championship, as a more realistic aim than any kind of British and Irish League.

Super Rugby is currently suspended but there are hopes it could return in the late summer after New Zealand and Australia, who have avoided the brunt of the global virus outbreak, play domestic tournaments.

South Africa could resume limited contact training soon but the country’s government has ruled out any full contact sport for the foreseeable future, while the Japanese Sunwolves will not be involved in any return to Super Rugby this year as travel restrictions are likely for some time.

When Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend spoke recently about planning for the sport’s return, he said the current vastly more serious situation in Europe may require more local thinking when international rugby gets back up and running.

“Scotland playing England, Wales and potentially Ireland [in the 2021 Six Nations],” is one possibility floated by Townsend.

“At club level it could [start with] Glasgow and Edinburgh playing against each other, then maybe players just below that level competing against each other. Who knows?” added Townsend.

“I would hope that club rugby would be able to return and international rugby would be able to return, and if the format needs to be narrowed then we just have to adapt to that.

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“I think everybody is planning to make sure that the club competitions we are currently involved in are the ones that we come back to.”

The Guinness Pro14 appear to have even more ambitious thoughts than that.

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