By George Byron
Jubilant Eastern Province Rugby Union boss Andre Rademan has hailed the inclusion of the Southern Kings in an enlarged European Pro14 tournament as a massive boost for the region.
In five weeks’ time, the Kings and Cheetahs will kick off a new adventure for South African rugby when they become the newest members of the new-look competition.
The tournament, which features the leading clubs of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy, has been expanded to incorporate the two South African teams in a ground-breaking move into cross-hemisphere rugby.
The two South African franchises, which voluntarily withdrew from Super Rugby participation last month, will play a schedule of 21 matches from September to the final on May 26 next year.
The fixtures are expected to be released early next week and Port Elizabeth fans can expect summer rugby at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
The competition has been split into two conferences of seven teams each, with an equal split of teams from each union.
Every team will play every other team at least once and the Italian, Scottish and South African teams will play an additional derby fixture to even out the schedule, while the Cheetahs will play the Southern Kings three times.
The Kings have been drawn in conference B with Scarlets, Dragons, Leinster, Ulster, Edinburgh and Benneton.
Conference A comprises Ospreys, Cardiff Blues, Munster, Connacht, Glasgow, Zebre and the Cheetahs.
“The Kings have been through tough times on and off the field over recent years but we now have the chance to reclaim our status as one of the powerhouses of South African rugby,” EPRU president Andre Rademan said.
“Under difficult conditions and against an unsettled off-field environment, the Southern Kings have been on an upward playing curve this season and there is much to be excited about.
“This team represents the heartlands of black rugby in South Africa – a tradition stretching back to the establishment of the game in this country – and we bring a unique passion and flavour to the tournament.”
Kings chief operations officer Charl Crous said exciting times lay ahead.
“We have always maintained that top-class international rugby will remain in the province and our home, the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium,” Crous said.
“We are certainly honoured to join and be associated with a premier brand like the Guinness Pro14 competition.
“Our inclusion in the competition will not only spread the brand of the Southern Kings to previously uncharted grounds, but will also open new commercial markets while expanding the reach of South African rugby and bringing European rugby to our doorstep.”
Crous said fans could look forward to watching internationally recognised European players facing the Kings.
“The Kings will continue to be based at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium and will play all our home matches at the stadium,” he said.
“This will be an opportunity for people of the Eastern Cape to see players like Jonathan Sexton, Rob Kearney, Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb, Stuart Hogg, Alberto de Marchi.
“They are among a long list of international players from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy who will face the Southern Kings in our own backyard in the near future.
“This is a great opportunity to bring our local players onto the international stage.”
SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux said accepting the invitation to play in the northern hemisphere competition was a groundbreaking move that would add a whole new dimension to the South African season.
“This development is as significant as the launch of Super Rugby itself back in 1996.
“It will not be without its challenges . . . but it is also a fantastic opportunity for South African rugby to widen our playing horizons.”