The Toyota Cheetahs and Southern Kings will kick off a new adventure for South African rugby in five weeks’ time when they become the newest members of the new-look Guinness PRO14 competition, it was confirmed on Tuesday.

The tournament – featuring the leading clubs of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy – has been expanded to incorporate two South African teams in a ground-breaking move into cross-hemisphere rugby.

The two South African franchises will play a schedule of 21 matches from September to the final on 26 May 2018.

In the season just ended, Rassie Erasmus’s Munster were defeated in the final by the Llanelli Scarlets of Wales, before a full house at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby, said the decision to accept an invitation to play in the northern hemisphere competition was a ground-breaking move that added a whole new dimension to the South African season.

“This development is as significant as the launch of Vodacom Super Rugby itself back in 1996,” said Roux.

“It marks the start of a new adventure for rugby in South Africa with a number of exciting opportunities. It will not be without its challenges in aligning with a competition in a different part of the calendar and in very different playing conditions; but it is also a fantastic opportunity for South African rugby to widen our playing horizons.

“We’re very grateful to Guinness PRO12 for opening the door to entry to one of the world’s top competitions, featuring some of the game’s leading club teams. We believe the Toyota Cheetahs’ and Southern Kings’ participation will be good for the competition and good for the teams.

“This is a very exciting day for South African rugby as a whole and the Toyota Cheetahs and Southern Kings in particular.”

Martin Anayi, CEO of the Guinness PRO14, welcomed both clubs to the Championship and described it as an historic chapter for the tournament and also for the game of rugby union.

“The arrival of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings marks a bold and exciting new chapter for the Guinness PRO14 in its goal to become a world class, global rugby Championship,” Anayi said. “These are established clubs who already operate to the high standards demanded by Super Rugby and they will add to the quality of our tournament.

“Expanding the Championship into new territories is one of our key goals in order to grow the tournament and unlock its true potential. Since the inception of the Celtic League in 2001, the Championship has embraced the concept of cross-border competition in countries that are rife with international talent.

“Last season saw 270 internationals appear in the Championship, and since then another 25 have made their test debuts while 27 of our players have been on duty with the British & Irish Lions on their tour to New Zealand.

“We are witnessing the natural evolution of the Championship and not only will the calibre of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings grow the audiences and revenue streams of the tournament and our clubs, it is a move that also lays the foundations for future expansion. The appeal of professional club rugby has never been greater and we want to play a leading role in in the growth of the game worldwide,” Anayi said.

The Southern Kings and Toyota Cheetahs will play a season of 21 league matches in the competition, with the aim of finishing in the top six to earn a place in the finals series.

THE PLAYING FORMAT IS:

Conference A

- Munster (IRFU)
- Ospreys (WRU)
- Glasgow Warriors (SRU)
- Cardiff Blues (WRU)
- Connacht (IRFU)
- Zebre Rugby Club (FIR)
- Toyota Cheetahs (SA Rugby)

Conference B

- Scarlets (WRU)
- Leinster (IRFU)
- Ulster (IRFU)
- Edinburgh (SRU)
- Benetton Rugby (FIR)
- Dragons (WRU)
- Southern Kings (SA Rugby)

• Each conference will contain 7 teams with an equal split of teams from each union

• Every team plays 21 regular season games

• Every team to play each other at least once

• All Home & Away Derby fixtures will remain in place

• Italian, Scottish and South African teams will play an additional Derby fixture to even out the schedule (e.g. Edinburgh will play Glasgow Warriors three times)

• The Guinness PRO14 Final Series will now include Quarter-Finals allowing six clubs to reach the knock-out stages (teams 1-3 from each Conference)

• The top 3 clubs from each conference will qualify for the Champions Cup while the team with the highest points total outside of those six teams across both conferences will claim the final Champions Cup place

Note: South African clubs will not be eligible to qualify for EPCR tournaments at present

To create an equal number of teams per union each conference will contain:

- 2 Irish teams; 2 Welsh; 1 Italian; 1 Scottish, 1 South African

Additionally, for the entrance of the South African teams their Super Rugby final placings were used for ranking.

To maintain competitive balance, the Conferences will be reset each season based upon rankings from the previous campaign.

FIXTURES

The regular season will consist of 21 Rounds, which is one game less than the previous format. These Rounds will be made up from a combination of:

- 12 Home & Away games in your team’s conference

- 7 Home OR Away games against each team from the other conference

- An additional 2 Rounds to ensure all derby fixtures are played home & away (this means Scottish, Italian, South African clubs play three derbies)

The fixture list has been drafted for all 21 rounds, this will be confirmed next week (commencing August 7) after the Championship’s broadcast partners have made their selections for live television broadcasts and the clubs have been consulted.

TRAVEL AND PLAYER WELFARE

In order to provide travelling teams to South Africa with the best possible preparation, games will be fixed for Saturdays. This will allow visiting teams to have a seven-day turnaround leading into these fixtures including five ‘clean days’ that do not involve any travel.

Flights between Europe and South Africa are overnight which will allow players to rest during the journey while training facilities and accommodation venues are up to the standards expected in Super Rugby.

For teams who are scheduled to play twice in South Africa, the aim will be for them to play back-to-back games on a ‘mini-tour’ in one round trip. Where the fixture list prevents this, games in South Africa for those clubs will be spread across a reasonable period of time.

Anayi added: “Our clubs, players and coaches are already excited about the opportunity to play in South Africa in front of new crowds, new stadiums and take on these exciting new tests.

“From a logistical point of view, we know that travelling long distance will be nothing unusual to the South African sides, and indeed our core international players, but it is a new departure for our clubs. As such we have been in a dialogue with performance directors across all participating unions to ensure that player welfare is not compromised.

“We will work closely with travel partners to ensure that players are provided the best possible times and conditions when flying to and from South Africa to make sure their preparation is unaffected.

“In addition, we will welcome members of SA Rugby’s Premier Panel of fulltime referees who will join our stable of elite officials. The 2017/18 season will bring the Guinness PRO14 to new destinations, create more competition and present more vibrancy than ever before on a journey we believe is only just beginning.”