After 16 rounds in March, the new Guinness PRO14 season ends, with a final between the two champions of the conference replacing the regular play-offs. In a new tournament named the Rainbow Cup, all 12 teams playing in the league this season will then enter four South African teams.
The decision to remove the play-offs puts an end to any dreams that Edinburgh or Glasgow still had of winning the trophy. The two Scottish teams are in fifth position in their respective six-team conferences, with just two wins each.
However, with the qualification for Europe depending on where teams finish at the end of the 16 rounds, if they are to battle their way into the Champions Cup ranks, both Richard Cockerill’s and Danny Wilson’s sides have something to lose. Although the qualification criteria for the Champions and Challenge Cups next season have not yet been confirmed, the top three teams from each conference usually qualify, with the fourth-placed teams going head-to-head.
While the season’s first 1872 Cup match will not take place this Sunday as planned due to Covid’s restrictions within the Warriors team, there could still be three scheduled derbies. The game will be rescheduled at the beginning of the new year, the home game of Edinburgh against Glasgow is expected to go ahead as planned on Saturday, Jan. 2, and the third meeting between the two teams will be in early March in Round 14.
The PRO14 final, which, considering the current conference standings, is almost definitely going to be an all-Irish affair, will take place on March 27. Two match-free weekends will follow, until the Nations Cup starts on April 16.
The Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers are the four teams from South Africa that will play alongside the 12 Scottish, Irish, Italian and Welsh teams in the Rainbow Cup. The competition starts with a pool stage in which teams are split into two eight-team groups. Each team will play against every other team in their pool once, and on June 19, the teams that finish best in their pools will compete in the final.
For PRO14 organizers, who were willing to re-engage with the nation after the Cheetahs and Southern Kings had to withdraw from this year’s competition because of the pandemic, the agreement with the four South African teams is a promising step. In a year culminating with the British & Irish Lions’ tour to South Africa, PRO14 chief executive Martin Anayi said the extension made particular sense.
“At a time when our sport is facing its greatest challenge, we have promising news of an innovative solution to work with South African rugby ahead of the British & Irish Lions tour,” he said in a statement released yesterday.
“It was vital that we work with all parties to ensure that our 12 teams have a clear pathway to European qualification. With the Lions’ upcoming tour of South Africa, it’s hard to think of a better way to whet the appetite than to see the best players from the Celtic regions take on the World Cup-winning Springboks in the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup.”
For its part, the South African Rugby Union, after announcing in September that it would withdraw from the Super Rugby competition, which previously included teams from Australia, New Zealand and Argentina, was equally eager to include its top teams in the PRO14. “The inclusion of South African ‘Super’ teams in the Rainbow Cup is a unique moment for South African rugby,”The inclusion of South African ‘Super’ teams in the Rainbow Cup is a unique moment for South African rugby. “After so much turmoil and uncertainty in 2020, the prospect of a return to a top-flight international competition at home is one we can all look forward to with real excitement.”
When he takes care of England’s home game against Italy in February, Mike Adamson will be the first Scottish referee of a Six Nations match in 19 years. Fellow countryman Ben Blain will support the former Scotland 7s international as an assistant referee for the game at Twickenham and has been named as an assistant referee himself for three other Championship matches.