Celtic Rugby and the South African Rugby Union have confirmed that the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings will join an expanded Pro14 tournament in time for the upcoming 201718 season.
A long-term strategic agreement has been signed by both parties which will allow the participation of two South African franchises in the renamed Pro14 Championship.
The agreement means that the Championship will take place across the Northern and Southern hemispheres and marks the first phase of expansion as the Pro14 becomes a truly global tournament.
Martin Anayi, CEO of the Pro14, welcomed both the Kings and the Cheetahs to the Championship and described it as an historic chapter for the tournament as it begins the first phase of expansion.
"The arrival of the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings marks a bold and exciting new chapter for the Pro14 as a global rugby Championship," Anayi said.
"As a country, South Africa is a rugby powerhouse of over 55 million people. These teams already operate to the high standards demanded by Super Rugby and they will add to the quality of our tournament.
"Our Unions and World Rugby are committed to broadening the game and this move is evidence of our ambition to lead the way in growing the club game beyond our own borders, which in turn will unlock the true potential of this tournament. Expansion is in the DNA of the Championship and ever since the Celtic League kicked off in 2001 Cross Border competition has thrived.
"Being based across some of the most renowned hotbeds of rugby, the Championship has always been rife with international talent and last season we saw 270 internationals appear in the Pro12. Since then another 25 made their Test debuts in June while 27 of our players were on duty with the British & Irish Lions in New Zealand.
"This is a natural evolution for the Championship and not only will the calibre of the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings grow audiences, interest and the commercial base for the tournament and our clubs, it is a move that also lays the foundations for years to come. The appeal of professional club rugby has never been greater and we aim to be at the forefront of the game's growth around the world.
"These are bold steps but the encouragement from our shareholder unions, our sponsors, our broadcasters and World Rugby – has shown that there is an appetite for innovation, fresh stories and new rivalries. The new tournament structure will also provide more teams with the opportunity to reach the Pro14 Final Series and that is fantastic news for our players, coaches and fans," Anayi said.
"To achieve this within three months is an astonishing achievement by everyone involved. I would like to thank Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby, and his colleagues in South Africa for their hard work and vision. For everyone involved this is a golden opportunity to do something unique within the game of rugby and it is fantastic that they share the same ambitions as our unions and teams.
"Last season's figures showed that we are the home of Positive Play and now the Pro14 will be one of the most unique and diverse rugby tournaments in the world."
The addition of the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings will require the Championship to introduce a new Conference format as a league format is not suited to a 14-team cross-border tournament.
The Pro14 will adopt a two-conference model which will allows for the new clubs to be added into the Championship without need to add extra rounds in 2017/18.
Glasgow Warriors (SRU)
Cardiff Blues (WRU)
Zebre Rugby Club (FIR)
Cheetahs (SA Rugby)
Benetton Rugby (FIR)
Southern Kings (SA Rugby)
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 & Away Derby fixtures will remain in place,
Italian, Scottish and South African teams will play an additional derby fixture to even out the schedule (e.g. Edinburgh will play Glasgow Warriors three times)
The Pro14 Final Series will now include quarterfinals allowing six clubs to reach the knock-out stages (teams one-three from each conference)
The top three teams 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.
South African clubs will not be eligible to qualify for EPCR tournaments at present.
The Conferences need to fulfil two criteria. First, there must be an equal number of teams from each union in both conferences. Secondly, there must be a competitive balance based upon the previous season's final placings that feed into union rankings.
To create an equal number of teams per union each conference will contain:
- Two Irish teams; two Welsh; one Italian; one Scottish, one South African
- Additionally, for the entrance of the South African teams their Super Rugby final placings were used for ranking.
To maintain competitive balance the Conferences will be reset each season based upon rankings from the previous campaign.
The regular season will consist of 21 Rounds, which is one game less than the previous format. These Rounds will be made up from a combination of:
- 12 home & away games in your team's conference.
- Home or away games against each team from the other conference
- An additional two Rounds to ensure all derby fixtures are played home & away (this means Scottish, Italian, South African teams play three derbies)
- The fixture list has been drafted for all 21 rounds, Rounds 1-13 will be confirmed next week (commencing August 7) after the Championship's broadcast partners have made their selections for live television broadcasts and the teams have been consulted.