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'The Stormers coming to Thomond Park': Would you be in favour of a new-look Pro18?

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey discuss the very real prospect of South Africa’s Super Rugby franchises joining the Pro14.

The Stormers' Damian Willemse offloads in a tackle against the Blues last season.
The Stormers' Damian Willemse offloads in a tackle against the Blues last season.
Image: Photosport/Marc Shannon/INPHO

THERE WAS A distinctly southern-hemispheric theme to this week’s Rugby Weekly what with the impending return of the sport in New Zealand this weekend, and the confirmation of a fixed date for the equivalent comeback in Australia next month.

Also discussed by Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey were Jerry Flannery’s new venture as part of a prodigious coaching ticket at Harlequins as well as the potential risk of a strike by Premiership players in light of the league’s pay-cut saga.

And then there was a melding of both halves of the rugby world: a chat about a purported Pro18, which would see South Africa’s four remaining Super Rugby franchises — or some version of them — break off to join their compatriots, the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings, in domestic competition with the Irish provinces, the Welsh regions, and the Scottish and Italian clubs.

In the end, the lads saw far more pros than cons to what remains an informal proposal, with Murray revealing the Pro14 quietly retain a serious interest in expanding to include four more teams from the home of the reigning world champions.

Here’s what Bernard, Murray and Gavan had to say, and you can vote and/or comment below to let us know whether or not you believe a Pro18 would be a better idea than the existing 14-team format. The full episode is available to listen to at the link below, or you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts: just search for ‘The42 Rugby Weekly‘.

Gavan: “The South Africans are kind of caught in No Man’s Land really, Murray, in that they probably are unwanted within the context of a Super Rugby competition, but there will be European teams looking at their potential introduction to the Pro14 the way the other two [South African] franchises were, thinking, ‘Listen, we don’t want to travel that far either,’ you know?”

Murray: “Yeah, it’s a fascinating one to be resolved over the next few years. The rumours of four more South African teams joining the Pro14 — or the Pro18 as it might turn out to be — aren’t going away. Even this week, the South African Rugby CEO, Jurie Roux — he wasn’t very convincing in his attempt to deny it.

It’s certainly something that’s being looked at and, certainly, in terms of the time difference, it makes a lot more sense for the TV market if South Africa were to link with Europe. You’re essentially in the same timezone, an hour’s difference, and it makes sense when you’re trying to make those broadcast deals because South Africa, as we know, is a rugby-mad country.

“Now, obviously, you wouldn’t have any of the historical element of the teams playing against each other, the sense of rivalry, but you can build that quickly and market the sport intelligently. I think you can do that in a short space of time.

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schalk-brits-with-waisake-naholo Schalk Brits on the charge for the Bulls. Source: Photosport/Joe Allison/INPHO

“It feels like an opportunity. It just hasn’t worked [for the South African teams] in Super Rugby. In the Rugby Championship or the Tri Nations as it was, those rivalries were superb at Test level and you probably don’t want to lose that; you want the Springboks playing against the Kiwis and the Aussies every year if it’s possible. And it looks possible with the Nations Championship possibly launching. But on the Super Rugby side, it hasn’t really been a success and it hasn’t quite captured the imagination — because of the time difference, I’d say, in many ways, where matches are on all over the place and you can’t really get into it.

I think commercially it would make sense for them (the Pro14 and South African Super Rugby franchises) to link and I’d be fascinated to see how that would develop. And it certainly hasn’t been dismissed. When the Pro14 announced the recent CVC investment there was obviously no mention of South Africa Rugby in the statements, but speaking to them off the record, they’re saying, ‘Listen, South Africa is very much at the forefront of our thinking’, and they’ve gone on the record as well to say they would like to expand that side of it.

“Yes, it’s not ideal for teams jumping on a flight but the way you’ve seen teams do it on a tour basis has been okay. Or else you could go to a conference system where, if you had all those South African teams in the Pro18, they play their own conference and then they link up for play-off games. There are a few possibilities there and I think it’s increasingly looking like South African Rugby is looking towards Europe.”

rabz-maxwane-takes-to-the-field Cheetahs' Rabz Maxwane takes to the field at Connacht's Sportsground. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Gavan: “So, for all of the prospective added travel for the Pro14 clubs, there are ways around it. If you continued to do it as a kind of touring system as the Pro14 clubs have been doing, you could conceivably just add one extra week onto your travel, or two weeks and an extra game, which isn’t maybe the end of the world. Bernard, how do you see this from a European point of view, the potential of these four extra South African teams joining the league?”

Bernard: “Look, the advantage would be you’re getting bigger franchises. You’re getting the Stormers, the Bulls, the Lions and the Sharks — or you’re getting some form of those. So, that’s probably attractive: you’re getting teams who have been competitive in Super Rugby; successful franchises or historic teams that have been around for a long time. Whereas the Cheetahs, in fairness, were trying to build that but were never that well supported, and the Kings had been in Super Rugby but it’s a relatively new professional team and they’ve had some problems financially.

So, I think that’s a different element: the Stormers coming to Thomond Park, or the Bulls… The Bulls have suddenly gotten huge investment. Jake White’s gone in there and he’s gotten the chequebook out and they’re putting together a really strong roster. That’s what the Pro14 — or Pro18 — needs: it needs quality teams who can go toe-to-toe with the current top four or five. And if that happens, I think fans will engage with it, and rivalry will be built up and excitement will be built up. But yeah, they have to be the right teams with the right funding, with international-quality players playing against the best in Europe.

“If South Africa do cut ties with Super Rugby as we know it, I could see it being a success. But it has to be the best players and the best teams.”

What say you? Would you be in favour of a Pro18 involving the four remaining South African Super Rugby franchises?

Poll Results:

Yes (1657)
No (321)

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