Pro14 targets SA expansion after Kings’ liquidation, adds Monday evening TV slot

Pro14 Rugby has stated it is in “early discussions” with SA Rugby to expand the number of South African franchises in the cross-border league, while it has introduced a Monday Night Rugby concept for the upcoming 2020-21 season.

Pro14 Rugby has provided an update to its planning following last month’s announcement that it would not feature any matches involving South African teams until at least 2021 after Port Elizabeth-based outfit Southern Kings voluntarily withdrew from domestic action amid financial difficulties.

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

The Pro14 was known as the Pro12 until 2017, when the Kings and Cheetahs expanded the reach of a competition that had previously only featured clubs from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.

SA Rugby last week detailed a restart plan for the sport that will involve the formation of a domestic Super Rugby competition and a Springbok Showdown. The plan represents a complete re-working of fixtures and competition structures that has been forced by the six-month Covid-19 interruption.

The South African rugby season will resume on Saturday with a double-header between the Bulls and Sharks, and the Lions versus the Stormers, in what will be known as ‘Super Fan Saturday’. These matches will be followed by the Springbok Showdown on October 3.

Following these two events, the seven provincial teams will move into a double round of local action over 16 weekends to compete for Super Rugby Unlocked and Currie Cup trophies. The first round of matches – from October 10 to November 21 – will be for Super Rugby Unlocked honours.

All points won will be carried forward into the second round – the Currie Cup from November 28 to January 9, 2021 – which will culminate in semi-finals and a final on January 23 next year. For the Pro14, the absence of the two South African teams also raises questions over the prospects of maintaining the value of a lucrative rights deal in sub-Saharan Africa with pay-television broadcaster SuperSport.

Pro14 Rugby said yesterday (Wednesday): “SA Rugby’s long-standing commitments are to field two teams in the Guinness Pro14 and in light of the withdrawal of the Southern Kings, discussions are on-going about fulfilling this agreement from 2021 using a replacement team from its current professional franchises.

“Additionally, both Pro14 Rugby and SA Rugby are in early discussions about potentially expanding the tournament and deepening our partnership to include more South African franchises from 2021.”

As a result of travel restrictions to and from South Africa due to Covid-19 restrictions, the first 11 games of the 2020-21 Pro14 season will feature European-based teams only. The league said plans are in place for South African teams to resume playing in 2021, but they will not be able to play a full schedule.

Monday Night Rugby

Pro14 Rugby used the launch of the initial calendar for the 2020-21 season to introduce Monday Night Rugby. The first eight weeks of action will see the opening Monday night game occur in Round 3 when Munster host Cardiff Blues at Thomond Park on October 26.

In total, 14 Monday night fixtures will take place between the third and eighth rounds with scheduling aimed at preventing direct clashes with the extended international calendar. With the finale of the suspended 2020 Six Nations and the new Autumn Nations Cup taking place from October through to early December, the majority of Pro14 fixtures during this time will take place on Sundays and Mondays.

Where possible, Monday night fixtures have been set across two time slots of 6pm and 8:15pm (GMT).

Premier Sports, the subscription broadcaster, is the tournament’s main rights-holder in the UK in a deal running from 2018-19 to 2020-21.

Dominic McKay, chairman of Pro14 Rugby, said: “Thanks to the buy-in and support from our teams and broadcasters we believe we have delivered an innovative solution to the challenges posed to us by the international rugby calendar. Playing on Monday nights provides the Guinness Pro14 with a unique platform in the rugby market and enables us to make the most of playing through such a busy time for our sport.”

The season itself will kick-off on October 2 with Parma hosting Cardiff Blues.