The long awaited announcement of two South African teams’ involvement in the Guinness Pro12 was released on Tuesday 1 August by Celtic rugby. The Southern Kings and the Free State Cheetahs, who were recently axed from Super Rugby, will join teams from Wales, Scotland Ireland and Italy in a newly reformatted and renamed Guinness Pro14 that will commence in September 2017.
The new format will consist of a two-conference system, with seven teams in each conference. Each team will play the other six teams in their conference twice, one home and one away, and then play each team in the other conference once, either home or away. There will also be an additional derby game for each team, resulting in teams from the same country playing each other three times. In total, each team will play 21 games during the normal season, before heading into the finals series.
The finals series will consist of a quarter-finals weekend, which allows the top three teams from each conference to make it through the play-offs. The top two teams are likely to be advanced to the semi-final, with the remaining four teams contesting two quarter-finals.
The conferences consist of two Irish and Welsh teams as well as one team from South Africa, Scotland and Italy each. The division of the teams is based on the final standings from the previous season in Super Rugby and the old Pro12. The Southern Kings will form part of Conference B, and will join Scarlets (Wales), Dragons (Wales), Leinster (Ireland), Ulster (Ireland), Edinburgh (Scotland) and Benetton Treviso (Italy). The Cheetahs’ conference, Conference A, consists of Ospreys (Wales), Cardiff Blues (Wales), Munster (Ireland), Connacht (Ireland), Glasgow (Scotland) and Zebre (Italy).
Andre Rademan, president of the Eastern Province Rugby Union, said: “We 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.
“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.”
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.”
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 exciting as the launch of 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 rugby horizons.
“This time next year South African provincial teams will be competing in 11 countries on five continents. We believe the Toyota Cheetahs’ and Kings’ participation will be good for the competition and good for the teams.”
The confirmed fixture list will be announced by Celtic Rugby soon, however it is expected that summer rugby in South Africa will kick-off from as soon as September 2017.