SA’s entry to Europe is a moving target

The possibility of the Rainbow Cup SA offering a ticket to the Champions Cup for the winner would be a game-changer for the competition, but entry to Europe remains a moving target. writes CRAIG LEWIS.

Trying to keep track of the active and ongoing plans to secure South Africa’s entry into elite European competition is a complicated business.

The Sharks, Stormers, Bulls and Lions will all head into action on Saturday as a revised Rainbow Cup SA competition kicks off. Later this year, the four franchises will join an expanded PRO16.

Ultimately, the overwhelming ambition is for the move to northern hemisphere competition to serve as the prized stepping stone into the elite Champions Cup.

The general expectation was that the PRO16 competition (rather than the Rainbow Cup) would function as the likely route to Europe for South Africa’s top four teams.

However, recent talk has persisted to suggest that a major incentive to the Rainbow Cup SA would have been to reward the winner of the six-round competition with the prime entry ticket to the Champions Cup.

This website understands that coaches were informed of this as a viable prospect being explored, and when Bulls coach Jake White was asked about such a potential ‘incentive’ during Friday’s pre-match press conference, he highlighted the awareness around this possibility.

‘I’m not sure of the detail yet, I know that has been mentioned, but it hasn’t been formalised yet. The reality is that everyone is pushing towards the long-term goal of us getting into Europe, and I’m hoping this can be one of the avenues in which we can do it.

‘There’s nothing in writing, but I do know from SA Rugby’s point of view, the fact we want to play in Europe means that we want to play in tournaments like the Heineken Cup. We want to make sure we are good enough, so that if we do get invited and selected to play in that tournament, we can do well enough.’

Earlier this year, European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) chairperson Simon Halliday said he anticipated South Africa’s PRO16 Rainbow Cup teams to soon become part of the European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup competitions.

‘All of our stakeholders are changing and improving, so the opportunity that could be presented to us through the South African franchises coming in to make it a PRO16, that’s not agreed yet, but the debate is very advanced,’ Halliday more recently commented.

‘The opportunity to look at global club competition at some point in the future, all of these things are open for us to look at and develop and make a reality. Fans are going to be more excited about that opportunity in years to come.’

As it stands, SA Rugby would need to be formally invited by the EPRC, and soon as that materialises, the opportunity will be snapped up.

To further muddy the waters, though, reports out of Wales on Friday suggested that EPCR organisers had confirmed the Champions Cup will be staying as a 24-team tournament for next season, with eight representatives from each of the Premiership, Top 14 and PRO14.

The suggestion being that Cardiff and Glasgow, who finished fourth in their respective PRO14 conferences, will be heading into the Champions Cup, and that they will not lose out at this point to potential South African entrants.

As it stands, South Africa’s four franchises will head into Rainbow Cup action on Saturday with everything to play for, albeit while still waiting to receive confirmation if this could include the ultimate Champions Cup incentive.

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Craig Lewis