The Guinness PRO14 looks set to become the Guinness PRO16 after South African Rugby voted to exit its relationship with New Zealand and Australia and focus instead on the Northern Hemisphere for its top clubs.
PRO14 Rugby has not yet reacted formally to the news from yesterday but this is a discussion which has been ongoing and will add real strength to the Championship with the addition of the Emirates Lions, Vodacom Bulls, DHL Stormers and Cell C Sharks, together with most of the World Cup winning players from 2019.
A special general meeting of the South African Rugby Union (SARU) paved the way for the change yesterday by voting to explore entering the four teams into an expanded competition with clubs from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy.
Adding this competitive dimension as well as a major new audience for TV rights and all taking place in a similar time zone would be a big win for the tournament which took on private investment from CVC in a deal that gave the investor a 28 per cent stake in the business and which closed during the pandemic.
Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby, said the meeting and options had been presented as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the unilateral decision by the New Zealand Rugby Union to proceed with a domestic or trans-Tasman competition.
Roux said New Zealand’s decision made it impossible to deliver the 14-team Vodacom Super Rugby competition that had been agreed by the partners and for which five-year broadcasting agreements had been signed.
“Our members are excited about the prospect of closer alignment with PRO Rugby Championship and seeking a northern hemisphere future, but we would not have been taking this decision but for actions elsewhere,” said Roux.
That final comment means that we should yet tread with a degree of caution as there is the possibility of a change of heart from New Zealand when they stare down the barrel of unpicking those rights and making their own rugby influence smaller on a long term basis.
Nonetheless, it is an exciting prospect to open out the competition and put it truly on an equal footing with English Premiership and French Top 14 Rugby.
At a time when the sport remains in crisis over concerns for fans getting back into stadia, this is a potentially very valuable lifeline against which hope and extra funding can be pinned.