Two South African Super Rugby franchises are to join the Guinness Pro12, possibly as early as next season.
The competition is likely to be further expanded in the near future with the addition of a team from Washington DC.
The Southern Kings, from Port Elizabeth, and the Cheetahs, from Bloemfontein, are expected to learn next week that they are to be turfed out of Super Rugby at the end of this season as the Southern Hemisphere competition looks to slim down. The Guinness league is going the other way and the addition of the two sides will make it an extended Pro14 from the beginning of next season, 2017-18.
The South African duo look likely to be joined by one USA franchise based in Washington DC but not until the season after next, 2018-19.
It is not yet clear whether the new format would be one league or whether the Pro14 would consist of two divisions, each of seven teams.
The move was as good as confirmed by the chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union, Gareth Davies.
“There are discussions going on, which people are aware of, between the Pro12 and South African rugby union and the franchises down there,” Davies told the BBC in Wales. “There is a desire from the South African teams I think to join the Pro12 and I think the Pro12 would like them to join.
“The Pro12 itself is a cross-border competition already and this just extends this. It makes for a promising and exciting future, if it did happen.
“At the moment it looks like the two teams from Super Rugby that will not be in the competition next year will join [the Pro12]. I suspect there will be interest further afield from South African teams as well.
“It just expands the tournament and I think it’s an opportunity to develop the game within the northern hemisphere.
“There is still a lot of work to be done in terms of the legal complexities with issues such as broadcasting, commercial and, most important, player welfare with all the travelling that has to be done and the logistics associated with that.”
Ever since two Italian teams were invited to join the competition in season 2010-11, the old “Celtic League” has lacked any geographical integrity and the open borders policy has just been further extended.
As Davies’ concedes, the logistics are horrible, especially at a time when player welfare is at the top of everyone’s agenda. The flight time from London to Jo’burg is 12 hours and you can probably add two more flights at either end for almost every team in the league.
The return journey will feel twice as long with all the bruises a modern players picks up although there was a suggestion that the two African franchises may play some “home” games in London.
It will be interesting to see English Premiership Rugby’s reaction to the Pro14 parking tanks on the their lawn.
What does make a link with Europe so attractive to South African teams and sponsors is the marginal time difference between the republic and the UK and Ireland. The difference is currently one hour and never gets wider than two, which means that kick off times can always been viewer friendly in both places, a big advantage.
The rest of tie-up makes little sense and is driven by the desperation of the Pro12, which finds itself being squeezed out of the market by the bigger and richer French and English clubs.
The South African duo look likely to be joined by one USA franchise based in Washington DC but not until the season after next, 2018-19. The principle backer of the new venture is Paul Sheehy, a former USA Eagles full-back who now owns and runs a large chain of car outlets.
The plan is to share a ground with the local Major League Soccer team DC United who are planning to build a brand new stadium.