PRO14 have unveiled a new format for next season’s expanded league which will welcome four South African franchises and be renamed the United Rugby Championship.
The Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and Lions will all become eligible to qualify for the Champions Cup just like other clubs which form the PRO14.
The 16 teams will be divided into four regional pools of four teams each, whereby the Irish provinces will play each other home and away, and ditto those in Wales and South Africa, with the two Italians and Scottish sides also grouped together.
The top eight teams in a single 1-16 table after those 18 regular-season encounters will then enter a straight knockout phase, culminating in a grand final.
All points won during the URC season will contribute to rankings in the regional pools, and the highest-ranked team in each of the four groups will earn a Champions Cup place for the following season.
The remaining four allocated Champions Cup spots will go to the four highest-placed league teams that have not already qualified through their regional pools.
On the new format, the PRO14 said: “Four regional pool tables will determine the six Home and Away fixtures played by each team in their territory. The remaining 12 games will be made from an even number of Home or Away games against the other teams in the league. Regional pools were designed to amplify rivalries and competitiveness among nations.
“All points won during the URC season will contribute to rankings in the regional pools and the winner of each pool will earn a place in the Champions Cup for the following season. This addition to the format is expected to add even greater intensity to these age-old rivalries.
“The remaining four places will then be awarded to the four highest-ranked teams in the single-standing league table who did not win their regional pool. Final seeding for the Champions Cup will be based upon the league positions of all eight teams.”
This format does guarantee one Champions Cup qualifier from each of the pools, i.e one Irish, one Welsh, one South African and one Italian or Scottish team.
PRO14 chief executive Martin Anayi said: “Fans have always asked more of our league, and now we are taking it to new heights. Since the origins of the Celtic League in 2001, the vision has been to innovate and evolve in order to create a compelling competition which would challenge our players and teams to be at their very best every single week.
“Their potential has never been in doubt, and now we can provide them with the arena to be the very best.
“Forming the United Rugby Championship will begin to reshape the world of club rugby. We are creating a league that embraces and celebrates difference, and where the only way to succeed will be to match the skill and intensity of the international game.
“The arrival of South Africa’s elite teams and the removal of fixtures from international match weekends will make our league stronger across the board.”