THE current Guinness PRO14 season will end after 16 rounds in March, with a final between the two Conference winners replacing the usual play-offs. All 12 of the teams who are competing in the league this season will then be joined by four South African sides in a new tournament called the Rainbow Cup.

The decision to scrap the play-offs ends any lingering hopes that Edinburgh or Glasgow may have had of challenging for the title. With only two wins apiece so far, the two Scottish sides are languishing in fifth place in their respective six-team conferences.

However, with European qualification being decided on where teams stand at the end of the 16-round season, both Richard Cockerill’s side and Danny Wilson’s have a lot to play for as they hope to fight their way into the Champions Cup places. While the qualification criteria for next season’s Champions and Challenge Cups have yet to be announced, the top three sides in each conference normally qualify, with the fourth-placed teams playing off against each other.

Although the first 1872 Cup match of the season will not take place as planned this Sunday because of Covid restrictions within the Warriors squad, there will still be time for the three scheduled derbies to go ahead. That match will be given a new date early in the New Year, Edinburgh’s home game against Glasgow is still expected to go ahead as planned on Saturday 2 January, and the third meeting of the teams will be in Round 14 in early March.

The PRO14 final, which given current conference standings will almost certainly be an all-Irish affair, will take place on 27 March. Two fallow weekends will then follow before the Nations Cup kicks off on 16 April.

The Bulls, the Lions, the Sharks and the Stormers are the four South African teams who will compete alongside the 12 Scottish, Irish, Italian and Welsh teams in the Rainbow Cup. The competition will begin with a pool stage, in which the teams will be split into two sections of eight. Each team will play every other team in its pool once, and the sides that finish top of their pools will meet in the final on 19 June.

The agreement with the four South African sides represents a successful move for the PRO14 organisers, who had been keen to get involved in that country again after the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings had to pull out of this season’s competition because of the pandemic. PRO14 chief executive Martin Anayi said the expansion made particular sense in a year that will culminate in the British & Irish Lions’ tour to South Africa.

“At a time where our sport has faced its greatest challenge, we have promising news about an innovative solution to partner with South African rugby ahead of the British & Irish Lions tour,” he said in a statement released yesterday.

“It was vital that we worked with all parties to ensure our 12 teams had a clear road towards European qualification. With a Lions tour in South Africa to come it is hard to think of anything better to whet the appetite than the best players from the Celtic regions competing against World Cup-winning Springboks in the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup.”

For their part, SA Rugby have been just as keen to get their leading sides involved with the PRO14 teams, having announced in September that they were withdrawing from the Super Rugby tournament which has previously also included teams from Australia, New Zealand and Argentina. “The inclusion of South Africa’s ‘Super’ Teams in the Rainbow Cup is a once-in-a-generation, watershed moment for South African rugby,” SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux said. “After so much turmoil and uncertainty in 2020, the prospect of a return to top-flight international domestic competition is one to which we all can all look forward with real excitement.”

n Mike Adamson will become the first Scottish referee of a Six Nations match in 19 years when he takes charge of England’s home game against Italy in February. The former Scotland 7s international will have compatriot Ben Blain as one of his assistant referees for the Twickenham match, and has himself been appointed as an assistant referee for three other games in the Championship.