Edinburgh Rugby face a trip to Port Elizabeth in the coming season after the new Guinness PRO14 format was announced, with the Southern Kings in the same conference as Richard Cockerill’s men.
As expected, two South African franchises, the Blomfontien-based Toyota Cheetahs and the Kings will join the expanded tournament. Edinburgh will still play Scottish rivals Glasgow home and away for the 1872 Cup.
Each conference will be made up of two Welsh and two Irish teams, with one representative each from Scotland, Italy and South Africa. “The agreement means that the Championship will take place across the northern and southern hemispheres and marks the first phase of expansion as the Guinness PRO14 becomes a truly global tournament,” Celtic Rugby and the South African Rugby Union said in a joint statement.
The groups have been based on last season’s results with the Ospreys, Cardiff Blues, Munster, Connacht, Glasgow, Zebre and the Cheetahs in Conference A. Last season’s champions Scarlets, Dragons, Leinster, Ulster, Edinburgh, Benetton Treviso and the Southern Kings will line up in Conference B. Teams will play each other home and away in their own section and sides out of their own conference once.
The 21-game regular season will be completed by two additional rounds of matches, ensuring Welsh and Irish teams retain their current six derbies each. The Scottish, Italian and South African sides will play each other three times. The Cheetahs and the Southern Kings, from Port Elizabeth, will play only on Saturdays and there will be five travel-free days before matches. The South African franchises will not be able to qualify for Europe through their league placing.
The top side from each conference will advance to the semi-finals. Teams placed second and third in each conference play each other to determine the other two semi-finalists.
The play-offs will work over a three-week period after the regular season has been completed.
It is believed the addition of the two South African teams will bring in an extra £6m a year in revenue.
The top three non South-African sides from each conference will qualify for the Champions Cup. The team with the highest points total outside of those six teams across both conferences will claim the final Champions Cup place
“This move will contribute to the drive for ever higher standards that we demand across the tournament and provide greater resources to our clubs who will compete in the most testing environment the Championship has ever created,” the Guinness PRO14 outlined. “We can also reassure supporters across the Championship that all current home and away derby games have been protected - these fixtures are sacrosanct to the tournament and those tribal rivalries are just one element of what makes the Guinness PRO14 so special.”
The fixture list has been drafted for all 21 rounds, with Rounds 1-13 to be confirmed next week after the Championship’s broadcast partners have made their selections for live television broadcasts and the clubs have been consulted.
An SRU Statement said: “Scottish Rugby has been instrumental in driving forward the development of the Guinness PRO12 and is therefore pleased this ambitious expansion is now a reality.
“To bring two quality teams from South Africa into a competition which is already one of the most competitive and attractive in the world game will raise playing standards, create unique matches, develop all the teams involved and generate additional revenue across each of the participating nations.
“The ambition is to create the world’s top club competition and today’s announcement is a significant step in that direction. We now look forward to welcoming the Southern Kings and Toyota Cheetahs to Edinburgh, Glasgow and Scotland this season.”