The worst kept secret in rugby was confirmed yesterday as it was announced that the Pro12 will be expanding to the Pro14 with the inclusion of dropped South African Super Rugby franchises, the Kings and the Cheetahs. It was also announced (weeks after the story originally broke) that the league will be split into 2 conferences.
For those who haven’t yet seen the new league structure I recommend watching the video on the Pro14 YouTube page, but I will try to explain it here.
The league has been split into 2 conferences, each containing 2 teams from Wales & Ireland and 1 from Scotland, Italy and South Africa. Each season the conferences will be reorganised according to last season’s results. For the 2017/18 season, the conferences will be:
Conference A: Ospreys, Cardiff Blues, Munster, Connacht, Glasgow, Zebre, Cheetahs
Conference B: Scarlets, Dragons, Leinster, Ulster, Edinburgh, Treviso, Kings
Each team will play home and away fixtures against everybody in their conference (12 games), and then either home or away against each team from the other conference (7 games). Derby games are being protected, so there will be a further 2 games per team to ensure that they play home and away against every team from their country. In the case of the Scottish, South African and Italian clubs, they will play their derby match 3 times in total to make the same total of 21 games due to there being less derbies than for the Welsh/Irish.
The playoffs will span 3 weeks, with the quarter-finals and semi-finals staying within the conference and the final being the only time the conferences play against each other in the playoffs. The quarter finals will see the 3rd placed team play at the 2nd placed team, with the winner playing at the 1st placed team in the semi-final.
Still following what I’m saying?
The Kings and Cheetahs will not be able to qualify for Europe. Champions Cup qualification will go to the top 3 non-South African clubs from each conference, with the final qualification spot going to the team that has not already qualified with the highest points tally. The remaining non-South African teams will qualify for the Challenge Cup.
Phew, there we go! That was not easy to describe, but still easier than Super Rugby has been since its last expansion!
People who have read some of my previous articles or spoken to me will know that I’ve not been a fan of the expansion into South Africa, but I do understand that the money it will bring to the league will be important when trying to compete against the Premiership and the Top 14. Some of my biggest worries have been about the logistics and the effect on European qualification, but it looks like some of these things are being dealt with.
As South Africa are only a couple of hours ahead, the plan is for teams to fly overnight and have a full week between matches in order to reduce the chance of jet lag. I have also heard that when possible the fixtures will be arranged so that European clubs can do both South African away matches in one trip, similar to the way Toronto Wolfpack’s home and away fixtures were arranged in blocks. It may not be ideal, but it’s good to see that officials have thought about this before going ahead.
I’m a bit surprised that for European qualification the 2 conferences have not been combined into an overall table, as under the planned qualification process it is possible that if one conference is stronger, teams from the weaker conference could qualify for the Champions Cup instead of more successful teams from the stronger conference. It wouldn’t surprise me if this is something that is looked at in future years once the structure is settled and clearly working.
I do also worry about how the South African clubs will perform. While they may benefit from other clubs losing players during the 6 Nations, they will instead be missing their internationals near the start of the season during the Rugby Championship. Both franchises also supply squads to the Currie Cup, which is played from June to October. To be playing Southern Hemisphere rugby competitions during the Northern Hemisphere preseason and the start of the season will put a large strain on the Kings and Cheetahs players, which could seriously limit their effectiveness. If there was a global season then I don’t think this would be such an issue, however with the different seasons for the 2 Hemispheres this could cause some issues!
Right now my biggest worry is the way the Pro14 already seems to be looking to grow. There have already been mentions of this as laying the foundations for years to come and being the first phase of expansion. The league has only just been announced, they have no guarantee it will be a success and yet they already seem to be looking for extra teams. Even the YouTube explanation mentions how a conference makes it easier to add new teams! Super Rugby have proved that expansion done wrong can be an awful idea, Pro14 need to take a couple of years of this format to ensure that it is working before looking to expand any further. If things don’t work out financially for Zebre this year (it’s been a difficult summer for them) then I can see them being replaced – hopefully by a European franchise – but the league needs a settled set of clubs to get the fans on board with the new structure.
Most importantly… When they do expand again, they need to make sure it’s sorted much earlier than a month before the season starts!
I may not be fully on board with the Pro14 yet, but I will give it every chance to succeed. For the sake of the clubs and the fans, I really hope it does.