The PRO14 has abandoned hopes of South African teams playing in the UK and Ireland as part of the Rainbow Cup due to travel restrictions remaining in place.
South Africa is currently on the red list of countries where travel to and from is prohibited by a number of European nations, including the UK, leaving the cross-hemisphere competition to be diverted from its original plan.
The inaugural season of the 16-team Rainbow Cup was set to commence this week and include the four leading teams from South Africa, the Lions, Bulls, Sharks and Stormers.
But league organisers have been met with little lee-way by governments wary of the South African variant of coronavirus. Instead, teams will now compete in a dual tournament restricted to their own hemispheres.
A PRO14 statement read: “All options for the South African teams to travel to Europe safely were explored and exhausted by the league. This is due to the heightened restrictions caused by South Africa’s presence on the red list of the territories involved.
“The ‘northern’ Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup will still take place on the dates previously published as teams from across Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales aim to take upset eight-time title winners Leinster Rugby. The fixtures for rounds four, five and six had already been scheduled and provided to clubs, but will now have the South African teams removed and kick-off times may be modified ahead of publishing.
“The ‘southern’ tournament will be called Rainbow Cup SA and will include the very best of what South African club rugby has to offer, the Sharks, Stormers, Lions and Bulls whose World Cup-winning Springboks are priming themselves for the arrival of the British and Irish Lions.
“A wide stakeholder group, led by a working group between the tournament team at PRO14 Rugby and SA Rugby, produced a long list of various options for entry of the teams, base camps and high-standard medical protocols across the past four months to cater for different scenarios.
“In total, twelve venues across the UK, Ireland and Europe were considered as base camps for the South African teams to operate out of or to use as a quarantine destination before entering the UK and Ireland. SA Rugby also explored another four locations separate from this. Destinations in the Middle East were also explored as potential hosts for fixtures involving South African teams.
“This process produced project plans for each venue to include suitable training and accommodation facilities and charter travel schedules under the constant guidance of a medical management committee, consisting of the PRO14 medical consultant, tournament staff and union chief medical officers. This group tracked the status of Covid-19 in the various territories and advised on the strategic approach to governments at all times.
“This (cancellation) decision will have no impact on the long-term partnership between PRO14 Rugby and SA Rugby and more details about those plans and league structure for the ground-breaking 2021/22 season onwards will be made public shortly.”
It is a considerable blow for the PRO14 after the curtailing of the 2020-21 season, which saw the Cheetahs booted out along with the defunct Southern Kings, to fit in the Rainbow Cup’s schedule.
PRO14 chief executive Martin Anayi said: “A staggering volume of work has been undertaken to provide a number of proposals and options to accommodate this – all as we navigated the challenges of the second and third waves of Covid-19 as well as the South African variant which constantly changed the landscape we were operating in.
“Among our unions, our own staff and SA Rugby there is no more that could have been asked in terms of designing plans that were medically sound, however, there has been no perfect solution found in time to allow for South African teams’ entry into our territories.”
SA Rugby boss Jurie Roux added: “This is a huge disappointment, but time had simply run out. No stone was left unturned to try and find a solution to the challenges – including basing our teams for ten days in locations in the Middle East or Europe. But the pieces of the jigsaw would not fall into place in time to allow us to put those plans into action.”