Over the last few weeks rumours have been intensifying about further South African expansion in the Guinness Pro14, with the four Super Rugby sides linked with joining the Northern Hemisphere competition.
It appears that serious changes are on the horizon for Southern Hemisphere club rugby with Super Rugby set to come to an end, replaced by a trans-Tasman competition involving the New Zealand and Australian sides, as well as one Pacific team, with the South Africans, Japanese and Argentinian teams left out.
As a result there is interest from both sides in seeing the likes of the Stormers, Bulls, Lions and Sharks entering the Pro14, potentially for the start of the 2020/21 season in October, expanding South African participation in the league three years after the Cheetahs and Kings joined.
Now there’s some valid concerns over added South African involvement in the league, especially when it comes to a lack of away fans, with the lower attendances and poor atmosphere that comes with that, as well as the general lack of rivalry that is difficult to create against teams based hundreds of miles away in a different hemisphere.
However, these days on the Cardiff Rugby Life I’m going for the optimistic point of view when looking at the Pro14, so let’s look at the positives of the additional South African sides, of which I can see two major ones.
Firstly, we would be welcoming the four strongest club sides from the country that are currently Rugby World Cup champions, and who all finished in the top 10 of 2019’s edition of Super Rugby, ahead of three Australian teams, a New Zealand side and the Japanese outfit.
If you look at how the Cheetahs have fared in three seasons of the Pro14, play-off contenders in two of the campaigns, and consider that each of the Stormers, Lions, Bulls and Sharks are stronger on paper, then they will certainly add something competitively to the league.
Pieter-Steph du Toit v Ellis Jenkins, Elton Jantjies v Jarrod Evans, Makazole Mapimpi v Josh Adams, and Duane Vermeulen v Josh Navidi are all mouth-watering clashes, with a number of other Springboks on the books of the four sides that Cardiff Blues would not otherwise have faced.
Then secondly, the new teams could bring with them a decent amount of television revenue, with South African channel SuperSport already paying a significant amount, more than £10m, to show the Pro14 with only Cheetahs and the perennial strugglers Southern Kings offering home representation.
It is a fair bet that without Super Rugby rights to pay for, and with the four biggest South African sides playing in the competition, SuperSport would be prepared to up their payments for Pro14 rights and provide a welcome boost to Welsh coffers as we enter a post-COVID world of professional sport.
It seems to me though that the biggest barrier to being positive about the development at the moment is a lack of any information or clarity over what the format of the Pro14 would be after the arrival of new South African teams.
At the moment it is unknown whether, if the four Super Rugby sides do join the Pro14, they will be so alongside the Cheetahs and Souther Kings to form a Pro18, or whether they would replace the incumbents and form a Pro16.
On that point it would seem unfair to me to jettison the Cheetahs as, although the Southern Kings have been an unmitigated failure both on and off the field during their time in the league, the side from Bloemfontein have brought something to the league with their style of play and competitiveness.
That’s for another time though, for now it’s just about how a Pro16 or Pro18 would work and, from where I’m sat, I don’t particularly see a satisfactory option on the table.
Neither setups would allow for a simple double round-robin, as the season would be simply too long alongside European competition and internationals, while a two-conference system would be out of the question for a Pro18 and a potential struggle for a Pro16.
The only way to operate two conferences in the Pro16 would be to have all four Welsh sides in the same conference, allowing us to play everyone in our conference home and away, and everyone in the other conference home or away, to offer 22 regular season games.
Alternatively there could be four geographical conferences of four teams, with the Scottish and the Italians pairing up. Home and away games against each side in the conference and home or away games against all other teams offers 18 regular season games.
However whether the Scots would be pleased at the prospect of Zebre home and away every season is one thing, and whether nine home games a season is enough is another.
There’s then a similar problem when looking at a Pro18, with three conferences of six seeing the Welsh and the Irish fight it out over the Scots and Italians. Whoever ends up with the Italians would unlikely be satisfied with the arrangement.
It would at least offer 11 home games though, with home and away games against the sides in your conference and then home or away games against everyone else.
That is probably the most attractive format, but still has it’s drawbacks, and will take some selling by the Pro14 to convince Welsh supporters that it is indeed the best way to incorporate any new South African sides to the competition.
Getting that right will be the real clincher to ensuring any expansion is a success, but if they do ensure that home and away derbies against the other Welsh sides are protected, and at least 10 home games a season can be offered, then there is every chance of this being a positive move for the Pro14 and Welsh rugby. Keep those minds open!