With the Guinness Pro 14 Rainbow Nations Cup drawing to a close this weekend when the Blue Bulls face Benetton Treviso in Italy, the announcement of the United Rugby Championship couldn't have come any sooner. South African fans now have an international competition for their teams to feature in again, after their exclusion from Super Rugby.
"South African Rugby has for many years imagined a future aligned with Northern Hemisphere rugby and this announcement marks the arrival of that vision" - Jurie Roux, SARU CEO.
The Rainbow Nations Cup was supposed to act as a tester tournament for the expansion of the Pro14, however the red tape involved due to the pandemic, rendered any cross continental competition impossible, bar this weekends final. However it is now confirmed that the Guinness Pro14 has been expanded and rebranded as the United Rugby Championship.
The competition kicks off in September thus year and will feature South Africa's top 4 franchises in the Sharks, Bulls, Stormers and Lions. They join the already established contingent of teams from Ireland, Wales, Italy and Scotland being Leinster, Munster, Ulster, Connacht, Scarlets, Ospreys, Cardiff Blues, Dragons, Benetton, Zebre, Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors.
The tournament will feature 18 rounds with a single standing log table and will feature a full set of quarter and semi-finals before the last two teams standing will face off in a destination final. Each team will play 6 home and away fixtures against their regional opponents and a further 12 home or away games against the remaining teams in the league.
The top ranked sides at the end of the regular season will enjoy home advantage in the finals, based on their overall rank on the log. This is great news for South African fans after the ridiculous situation of Super Rugby where Australian sides continuously made it into the finals, despite ranking lower on the log than many other teams due to the rule that each country had at least one spot reserved in the final.
Even better news is that contract negotiations are at an advanced stage to allow for the South African sides to qualify for the Champions Cup if they finish high enough on the log, which would propel them into competing against some of Europe's other top quality sides. This would be from the 2022/23 season onwards. The highest ranking team in each regional pool would then earn themselves a spot in the Champions Cup for the following season with the other four spots available to the next four highest ranking sides.
It has also been confirmed that no fixtures will be held over weekends featuring international test fixtures so fans should see their franchises featuring their top players on a regular basis in the competition. We here at the Rugby Punt-it cant wait to see who wins the 1st United Rugby Championship.