Cross-border rugby union league the Pro14 has today (Wednesday) taken a further step towards having greater South African participation with the announcement of a ‘Rainbow Cup’ competition to conclude its 2020-21 season.

Pro14 stakeholders have taken the decision to end the current season early in March in an effort to allow South Africa’s four former Super Rugby teams to join its existing clubs to finish the campaign with a 16-team Rainbow Cup competition ahead of the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa.

The league said that after consulting with key Pro14 stakeholders, the Rainbow Cup was chosen as the best pathway to finish up the current campaign and introduce the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers. In September, Pro14 Rugby said it was in “early discussions” with SA Rugby to expand the number of South African franchises in the league.

Pro14 Rugby updated its planning following August’s announcement that it would not feature any matches involving South African teams until at least 2021 after Port Elizabeth-based Southern Kings voluntarily withdrew from domestic action due to financial difficulties.

The Pro14 returned to action in August, but with only its 12 European teams as the Kings and fellow South African team the Cheetahs were unable to compete due to travel restrictions imposed by COVID-19.

The Pro14 had been known as the Pro12 until 2017, when the Kings and Cheetahs were added to a competition that had previously only featured clubs from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales. The path to an expanded Pro14 was further straightened later in September when SA Rugby voted to withdraw its four teams from Super Rugby with a view to entering them in the European competition.

Under the scheme outlined today, the 2020-21 Pro14 campaign will finish after 16 rounds with the conference winners facing each other in a final in late March. Qualification for the 2021-22 European Champions and Challenge Cups will be decided by rankings after Round 16.

On April 17, 2021, the Rainbow Cup will kick-off and introduce the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers and their World Cup-winning Springboks players. The competition will see two pools of eight teams made up of two Irish, two South African, two Welsh, one Italian and one Scottish club. Each team will play one game against each pool opponent and the sides that finish top of their pools will face off in a final on June 19.

Martin Anayi, CEO of Pro14 Rugby, said: “At a time where our sport has faced its greatest challenge, we have promising news about an innovative solution to partner with South African rugby ahead of the British & Irish Lions tour.

“It was vital that we worked with all parties to ensure our 12 teams had a clear road towards European qualification. With a Lions tour in South Africa to come it is hard to think of anything better to whet the appetite than the best players from the Celtic regions competing against World Cup-winning Springboks in the Guinness Pro14 Rainbow Cup.”

Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby, added: “The inclusion of South Africa’s ‘Super’ teams in the Rainbow Cup is a once-in-a-generation, watershed moment for South African rugby. After so much turmoil and uncertainty in 2020, the prospect of a return to top-flight international domestic competition is one to which we all can all look forward with real excitement.”

Pro14 Rugby said each South African team will be required to play three away games in Europe and these fixtures will occur in blocks, meaning one trip of two-and-a-half weeks. European teams will all play one away game in South Africa.

Concerning the challenges of staging the Rainbow Cup during COVID-19, the league added: “Pro14 Rugby is in continuous discussion about COVID-19 protocols with our Medical Advisory Group, made up from our chief medical officers across the Irish, Italian, Scottish, South African and Welsh rugby unions. The information and resources available to protect our teams is always improving and the group will continue to provide direction based on the latest guidance available at the time.”