After weeks of speculation‚ the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings have formally been confirmed as participants in the Guinness Pro14 after the Celtic League made the announcement on Tuesday.
The two South African teams will join clubs from Ireland‚ Wales‚ Scotland and Italy in a 21-game season that has been split into two pools of seven teams.
It starts in five weeks’ time.
The top seven teams in the former Pro12 qualified for the European Champions and Challenge Cups‚ but for the immediate future, the two South African teams are not eligible for those competitions. The European tournaments also include teams from France and England and no agreement could be reached on how to incorporate the two South African teams‚ should they qualify.
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 new dimension to the South African season.
"This development is as significant as the launch of Super Rugby itself in 1996‚" said Roux.
New ball game
"It marks the start of a new adventure for rugby in SA. 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 playing horizons."
Harold Verster, CEO of the 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 SA and we’re proud to be trailblazers. There is a lot of excitement around the union about the opportunity and we’re already looking forward to kickoff."
Andre Rademan‚ president of the Eastern Province Rugby Union‚ said: "The Kings have been through tough times on and off the field, but we now have the chance to reclaim our status as one of the powerhouses of South African rugby.
"Under difficult conditions and against an unsettled off-field environment, the 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 SA — 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."
The addition of the Cheetahs and the Kings will require the championship to introduce a conference format, because a league format is not suited to a 14-team cross-border tournament.
The Pro14 will adopt a two-conference model, which will allow for the new clubs to be added without adding extra rounds in 2017-18.
Conference A: Munster, Ospreys, Glasgow Warriors, Cardiff Blues, Connacht, Zebre Rugby Club, Cheetahs.
Conference B: Scarlets, Leinster, Edinburgh, Benetton Rugby, Ulster, Dragons, Southern Kings.
Each conference will contain seven teams with an equal split of teams from each union.
Every team plays 21 regular season games.
Every team to play each other at least once.
All home and away derby fixtures will remain in place.
Italian‚ Scottish and South African teams will play an additional derby fixture to even out the schedule (the Kings will play the Cheetahs three times).
The Guinness Pro14 final series will include quarterfinals, allowing six clubs to reach the knock-out stages (teams one to three from each conference).
The top three clubs from each conference will qualify for the Champions Cup, while the team with the highest points total outside of those six teams across both conferences will claim the final Champions Cup place.
Games will be fixed for Saturdays to provide teams travelling to SA with the best possible preparation. This will allow visiting teams to have a seven-day turnaround leading into these fixtures, including five days that do not involve any travel.
Flights between Europe and SA are overnight, which will allow players to rest during the journey. Training facilities and accommodation venues are up to the standards expected in Super Rugby.
For teams that are scheduled to play twice in SA‚ the aim will be for them to play back-to-back games in one round trip. Where the fixture list prevents this‚ games in SA for those clubs will be spread across a reasonable period of time.