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'Early discussions' over more South African teams in PRO14

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — Europe's PRO14 rugby league is in “early discussions” to add more South African teams next year, it said Wednesday, which might lead to the break up of the southern hemisphere's Super Rugby competition.

The top teams in South Africa, which is the reigning Rugby World Cup champion, have played against the best in New Zealand and Australia in the southern hemisphere's flagship club competition since the game went professional in 1996.

But there have been regular rumors in recent years that South Africa would prefer to play against European clubs because of similar time zones and a less-grueling travel schedule, and also the opportunity to make more money through bigger TV audiences.

Two of South Africa's smaller teams, the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs and Port Elizabeth-based Southern Kings, joined the PRO14 in 2017, making it a 14-team league. There are also four teams from Ireland, four from Wales, two from Scotland and two from Italy in the PRO 14.

PRO14's first challenge is to replace the Southern Kings, which have withdrawn from all competitions after going out of business during the coronavirus pandemic. A replacement South African team would need to be brought in for next season, PRO 14 said.

But it added: “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."

South Africa rugby body SA Rugby didn't immediately comment on PRO14's announcement. While no teams have been mentioned, only South Africa's top four, the Bulls, Stormers, Lions, and Sharks, could realistically compete in the PRO14. If any — or all — of them left Super Rugby it would be a body blow to the southern hemisphere club championship, which has been consistently restructured in an attempt to find the best format. South Africa is by far the biggest television audience for Super Rugby.

Teams from Argentina and Japan were brought into Super Rugby in recent years to join South African, New Zealand and Australian franchises in an attempt to expand rugby's reach. But those moves also increased the travel load for teams and the complications in finding the fairest way to decide who actually wins a tournament that is played on three continents. There is not enough time for every team to play the other at home and away.

Super Rugby's latest television rights deal expires this year, giving South African teams a logical window to leave. A move away by South Africa's leading domestic teams might also be a precursor for the world champion Springboks to abandon the annual Rugby Championship — and games against the New Zealand, Australia and Argentina national teams — and play, instead, in Europe's Six Nations.

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