PRO 12 confirm talks with South African Rugby Union over adding two more teams to expanded competition
Celtic Rugby, the legal name of the body running the PRO 12, released a statement on Wednesday afternoon confirming that the company have been in contact with the South African Rugby Union over the introduction of two South African teams into an expanded Guinness PRO 12 Championship.
The two teams are widely believed to be the Southern Kings out of Port Elizabeth and the Cheetahs out of Bloemfontein.
Both franchises were culled from Super Rugby as part of its downsizing but the PRO12 is determined to grow its numbers to keep pace with the revenue generated by rival competitions in England and France.
A six-year deal worth approximately €7m per annum has reportedly been agreed and will see the league split into two franchises of seven, with two Irish provinces and two Welsh teams being joined by a side from South Africa, Italy and Scotland. The PRO12 currently earns €18m in television rights.
The top team in each conference will qualify for the semi-finals, with the second and third teams from each earning a play-off place for the right to join them.
A Celtic Rugby statement on the mooted expansion read:
"Celtic Rugby can confirm that advanced & positive discussions are taking place with the South African Rugby Union regarding the introduction of 2 teams into an expanded Guinness PRO12 Championship.
"Given the proximity of the 2017/18 season start, a final decision on this potential expansion will be confirmed as soon as practical."
However, even with the expansion, it seems the prized Irish derbies will remain in the schedule as organisers look to protect the strong points of the current structure while moving ahead.
Last week, IRFU CEO Philip Browne suggested that it is only the start of the competition's expansion, with North American and eastern European franchises potentially on the PRO12's agenda.
It remains to be seen how the PRO12 will work its European qualification given the two South African teams will not automatically come into the Champions Cup reckoning and need further agreement with the EPCR stakeholders to participate in that competition.
From this season, the top seven qualify for the top tournament regardless of nationality, whereas previously each nation had to have a representative.
That is just one of the many hurdles the league will have to overcome as the provinces face a big increase in costs and travel times to play away matches in the African summer.
"The risk of doing nothing with the PRO12 in the long term is the greater risk," Browne argued last week. "We have to have some sort of paradigm change, otherwise we'll keep doing the same thing and getting the same result and we'll fall further behind Top 14 (in France) and PRL (in England)."