Guinness PRO14 officials have insisted their tournament hasn’t become the PRO13 following the announcement on Tuesday morning that Southern Kings were shutting up shop and not returning to play rugby again until 2021. 

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While the two South African franchises, the Port Elizabeth-based Kings and the Cheetahs of Bloemfontein, had been excused from the two-round regular-season completion of the 2019/20 season due to the pandemic, it was expected they would be at the starting line when the 2020/21 PRO14 season commences in October. 

Southern Kings, though, pulled the plug on those return-to-play preparations with a Tuesday morning statement and nearly seven hours passed before PRO14 officials issued a statement clarifying the situation regarding the South African franchise who have been tournament whipping boys since their 2017 admission, winning just four of their 55 matches. 

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A PRO14 statement on Tuesday afternoon read: “PRO14 Rugby is aware of the Southern Kings voluntary decision to withdraw from any domestic competitions in South Africa for the rest of the 2020 calendar year. 

“Due to on-going travel restrictions enforced by the South African government against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is not foreseen that any cross-border Guinness PRO14 games involving South Africa teams will take place until 2021. 

“PRO14 Rugby remains in discussion with SA Rugby on when South African participation in the league can resume in the new year. Work is already underway to concentrate the opening 2020/21 fixtures among the twelve European-based clubs.”

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With the future of the four South African Super Rugby sides uncertain given how the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in New Zealand and Australia running domestic restart tournaments, there has been much speculation that the Stormers, Lions, Bulls and Sharks could join the PRO14 at the expense of its two existing South African participants, the Kings and the Cheetahs, who signed up in 2017 after being excluded from Super Rugby.

“We could opt to field the Kings in the domestic competitions mooted by SA Rugby for the sport’s post-lockdown resumption if we so wished,” said Andre Rademan, chairman of the Southern Kings board. “If we did so, it would require additional loans to the Kings or extra investment from the shareholders to the tune of R6.5million (£300,000), which would add to the organisation’s existing substantial debt.

“However, as there was no contractual requirement for the Kings to resume short-term participation in the Guinness PRO14 competition, because of air travel restrictions, and as the Kings had no other commercial commitments to honour, the most prudent decision was to withdraw. This may not be a popular decision but in the current circumstances it is the right decision.”

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