IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora says the Union would be “very supportive” of the South African Super Rugby franchises joining an expanded Pro14, and has suggested the change could even happen in early 2021. Talks between the various Pro14 parties and four South African teams – the Bulls, Stormers, Lions and Sharks – are still ongoing as the league looks to add some extra quality to a competition which has looked increasingly stale in recent years.
The lack of high-quality opposition in the Pro14 has become a concern for the IRFU, who are fully behind the prospect of a new-look Pro16 competition, with Nucifora outlining the need for Irish players to be challenged on a more regular basis.
Three of the Irish provinces have won all of their Pro14 games this season (Leinster and Ulster are both 7/7, Munster are 6/6), while Connacht have lost two of their five games. Leinster have won four of their seven fixtures by at least 30 points, and all without a large chunk of their senior international players.
Leo Cullen’s side have comfortably topped their pool in each of the last two Pro14 seasons, winning the title on both occasions, and are unbeaten in the competition since April 2019. However they have come up short against English side Saracens in the Heineken Champions Cup for two seasons running, a trend that has been replicated at Test level with Ireland losing their last four games against England.
Ireland have also looked short on confidence since last year’s Rugby World Cup, where they suffered a surprise pool defeat to Japan before being blitzed 46-14 by the All Blacks in the quarter-finals.
And Nucifora believes the addition of the four South African franchises to the Pro14 will go a long way towards producing higher quality Irish teams and players going forward.
“As you well know, (we’ve) been speaking with Pro14 now for a period of time to try find solutions,” Nucifora said.
“The IRFU would be very supportive of South Africa entering the Pro14 competition, and potentially making it a Pro16. We think that Irish Rugby needs to be ambitious, we think that the Pro14 needs to be ambitious, and we think that having those four, strong South African teams enter our competition will help develop the game in the Pro14, it will help develop Irish Rugby, it will help develop Irish players, by stretching us, by challenging us, by challenging both our teams and challenging our players.
“I think that’s what high performing athletes want, they want to be challenged. Hopefully the right commercial outcomes can be achieved for the South Africans to become a part of the Pro14, to join and make it a Pro16.”
The possibility of the South African franchises moving to the Pro14 arose earlier this year after the New Zealand Rugby Union decided to go ahead with a domestic or trans-Tasman competition in light of the coronavirus pandemic, a move which led to the South African Rugby Union opting out of Super Rugby.
“Well talks are ongoing and they are at quite an advanced stage,” Nucifora explained.
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“There is obviously some time constraints about making those types of decisions, because to organise a significant change in competition structure involves a lot of things to happen. So there is a lot going on behind the scenes at the moment to try and see the possibility of that happening in the New Year.”
Nucifora, who also provided an update on the ongoing uncertainty surrounding player contracts during his annual briefing, said it is important Pro14 organisers are able to get the South African teams on board while the opportunity exits.
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“Well I think long-term you’ve always got to look at where you want to be, and I think that it’s (the Pro14) served its purpose to this point in time, but we’ve always got to be looking at ways around improving and getting better and challenging ourselves more.
“So if this opportunity is here now to do that, it may not always be here. So we have to take that opportunity while it exists because whether we are ready now or not, it’s here, and I believe it’s the best thing for Irish Rugby going forward. So you know, I think decisions just need to be made and hopefully agreement can be reached.”
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