THE Rainbow Cup will go ahead as a tournament of two halves after the PRO14 finally conceded defeat in their attempt to find a Covid-compliant way of having their own teams playing against four South African sides. 

Now, instead of integrating the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers into the same competition as the current dozen members of the league, the organisers have decided to have a Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup for the Irish, Italian, Scottish and Welsh teams, and a parallel tournament called Rainbow Cup SA for the South African quartet. 

Each PRO14 club, including Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh, was only originally scheduled to play one South African side over the six rounds of games that had been pencilled in. In that sense, scrapping the original plan has not changed too much, but the inability to host the South Africans in Europe is still a serious blow to the organisers, who had looked forward to introducing some welcome variety to their fixture list.

However, that blow will be offset by two factors. First, there will still be something akin to a pot of gold at the end of the Rainbow Cup, as it is understood that SA Rugby has still paid its participation fee of around €6million, meaning each of the 12 PRO14 members will be better off by up to €500,000.

Second, the PRO14 remains confident that they can go ahead with their plan to bring the South Africans on board next season, expanding the league to a PRO16.

The announcement that had appeared inevitable for some time was made yesterday morning via press release. “With no formal approvals in place to allow the South African teams to enter the UK & Ireland for their Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup fixtures, PRO14 Rugby and SA Rugby will operate dual tournaments with no cross-hemisphere fixtures,” it said.

“Despite a colossal effort, the South African teams were not granted the permission to travel in time to allow the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup to be played as originally planned. Such challenges are not unique to rugby as many international sports have found the Covid-19 pandemic a difficult landscape to plan for.

“All options for the South African teams to travel to Europe safely were explored and exhausted by the league. This is due to the heightened restrictions caused by South Africa’s presence on the red list of the territories involved.

“The ‘northern’ Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup will still take place on the dates previously published as teams from across Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales aim to upset eight-time title winners Leinster Rugby. The fixtures for Rounds 4, 5 and 6 had already been scheduled and provided to clubs, but will now have the South African teams removed and kick-off times may be modified ahead of publishing.

“The ‘southern’ tournament will be called Rainbow Cup SA and will include the very best of what South African club rugby has to offer; Cell C Sharks, DHL Stormers, Emirates Lions and Vodacom Bulls, whose World-Cup-winning Springboks are priming themselves for the arrival of the British & Irish Lions. These games will be available in the UK and Ireland with PRO14 Rugby’s current TV partners and full details of this competition will be confirmed by SA Rugby shortly.”

A spokesperson for the SRU added: “While it is disappointing the Rainbow Cup cannot progress in its intended format, we would like to thank colleagues at PRO14 for all their efforts in developing and progressing this concept. Covid-19 has impacted sport at numerous levels and the safety of everyone in this pandemic must remain the priority. We look forward to the Rainbow Cup in its new, revised format and wish Edinburgh Rugby and Glasgow Warriors well in their upcoming matches.”

Edinburgh get the competition underway on Friday evening when they play Zebre at Murrayfield, while Glasgow’s first game is in Treviso against Benetton on Saturday. The Scottish sides will then play each other twice, at Scotstoun on Friday 7 May then at the national stadium on Saturday 15, with the first match doubling up as the deciding encounter in this season’s 1872 Cup. 

Rounds four to six of the Cup are currently pencilled in for the weekends of 5th, 12th and 19th June, with the final set for 26th June.