Against the background of the dithering in the Super Rugby cull in Australia, the inclusion of the two chopped South African teams in the Pro 12 league in a couple of months is little short of astounding.
The format had been ‘leaked’ over the last few weeks and today’s confirmation held few surprises –
The 14 teams will be split into two conferences of seven, each featuring two Welsh sides, two Irish, one Scot, one Italian and one South African outfit.
Sides will play each other home and away in their own section and then the teams in the other group either home or away.
There will also be two additional rounds of derby matches, ensuring Welsh and Irish sides will retain six derbies each, as is the case now.
The Scottish, Italian and South African sides will play each other three times.
That will give everyone 21 regular season fixtures, with every game carrying league points.
The top three in each section will progress to end of season play-offs, which are to be extended to cover three weeks, with a quarter-final round ahead of semis and a grand final.
The winners of each conference will go straight through to the semis, with the other sides meeting in the quarters to try and book spots in the last four.
The top six will be joined by the fourth-placed team with most points in going through to the Champions Cup, with qualification now purely based on meritocracy.
Neither South African side can qualify for Europe.
The Ospreys and Cardiff Blues are together in one section, along with last season’s beaten finalists Munster, Glasgow, Connacht, Zebre and the Toyota Cheetahs.
Then in the other group, champions the Scarlets and the Dragons are joined by Leinster, Ulster, Edinburgh, Treviso and the Kings.
If teams have two away games in South Africa, the idea is for them to play them back-to-back, staying out in the country for a week.
To maintain competitive balance, the conferences will be reset each season based upon rankings from the previous campaign.
It is absolutely right to applaud the expansion – it will provide welcome additional revenue for all teams plus two new sides from outside the NH.
My one concern would be the structure – it has a convoluted format designed to protect the ‘lucrative’ derby clashes – which is understandable.
However the force-fit to accommodate this is likely to generate criticism similar to that which is dogging Super Rugby.
Some teams may appear to get ‘easier’ fixtures – whilst the Irish and Welsh sides play derby games, the Scots and South Africans will have an additional game v Italian clubs. In a tight competition the ability to rest players or be assured of bonus points could make all the difference.
I may well be proved wrong (I mostly am) but it will be no great surprise if there are howls of protest as we approach the play-offs in March next year.