Richard Cockerill bites back at Sam Warburton and defends Pro14’s pursuit of South African sides

Richard Cockerill has called for a period of stability in the Guinness Pro14 but has defended the league’s pursuit of South African sides.

Thursday, 22nd April 2021, 10:00 pm
Richard Cockerill thinks South Africa will eventually join the Six Nations. Picture: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images
Richard Cockerill thinks South Africa will eventually join the Six Nations. Picture: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

This season’s competition was cut short to accommodate the Rainbow Cup, a new tournament which was supposed to pitch South Africa’s big four Super Rugby franchises against the Pro14 clubs.

The plan was thwarted by Covid-related travel restrictions, leading to much criticism, notably from Sam Warburton.

The former Lions captain accused the Pro14 of “shamelessly” chasing money and turning the competition into a “mish-mash”. It has been claimed that SA Rugby paid a €6 million participation fee to allow the Sharks, Stormers, Lions and Bulls to participate in the Rainbow Cup.

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Former Lions captain Sam Warburton accused the Pro14 of "shamelessly" chasing money. Picture: AFP via Getty Images

Cockerill, the Edinburgh coach, thinks there can be a future for South African rugby in both the Pro14 and the Six Nations and dismissed Warburton’s criticisms, which were made at the launch of the new Lions Test jersey.

“He’s paid to say things isn’t he?” said Cockerill. “If he doesn’t say things he doesn’t get paid. So he’s got to talk about something.

“What we probably need is some stability in the league. We choose what teams are in there, choose a format and we stick with it for a number of years so we can actually see if this works.

“The concept of what’s happening is a good one, it’s an exciting one, and clearly it has to make commercial sense because it’s a professional sport. But I think it’s a sound idea, let’s see where it gets to.

“I can still see South Africa playing in the Six or Seven Nations at some stage because of the time zones and personally that makes perfect sense to me. So we’re happy to have the South African teams. Everybody is entitled to their opinion and Sam’s entitled to his. But he’s a journalist so he has to make up something to talk about.”

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With the cross-hemisphere aspect of the Rainbow Cup consigned to the dustbin, Edinburgh will face familiar foes in the new competition, starting on Friday night with a game against Zebre at BT Murrayfield.

The capital side will then play Glasgow twice, Ulster and Scarlets.

The South African sides are expected to now join an expanded Pro16 next season, which would be welcomed by Cockerill.

“There are only so many times Edinburgh can play Glasgow,” he said. “I think it’s important that we try to grow the competition and make it as strong as possible.

“With the season structure, hopefully it will be a competition that everybody wants to watch and players want to play in. We want to see our best players play as often as possible for their clubs.

“I think the rationale for this tournament [the Rainbow Cup] was a good one. Moving into the future, I think any way to make the competition stronger and have good teams in it is worthwhile looking at.”

The Pro14’s evolution has seen it change name, sponsor, format and teams on a regular basis. What began life as the Welsh-Scottish League in 1999, quickly developed into Celtic League with the addition of the Irish provinces.

Teams from Italy then joined the party in 2010 and, seven years later, the Cheetahs and Stormers from South Africa signed up only to be jettisoned.