A “mishmash” is what the new Pro14 Rainbow Cup was described as by former Wales captain Sam Warburton. Few would disagree as the new tournament starts on Friday.
They were always going to be ambitious plans, creating a new tournament for 16 sides in six territories in the middle of a pandemic.
Ultimately the Rainbow Cup has this week failed to emerge in the manner Pro14 bosses would have hoped for, as they start a new tournament which will run to the middle of June.
Instead of one competition, we have two separate tournaments taking place in South Africa and Europe because travel was not possible due to Covid-19.
The ‘northern’ tournament will be called the Guinness Pro14 Rainbow Cup and will feature 12 teams in Wales, Italy, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland. It is a Rainbow Cup without South African sides, which was not the plan.
As a result of Covid-related travel restrictions, the Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and Lions will contest the ‘southern’ tournament, which will be called Rainbow Cup SA.
The European tournament starts this weekend, consisting mostly of derby games within nations, while the South African teams will not be involved over the next few days.
It was meant to be the Stormers and Sharks kicking off proceedings, but instead Ulster against Connacht in Belfast and Edinburgh versus Zebre in the Scottish capital will mark the start of the new competition on Friday night.
Welsh and Irish derbies will follow over the weekend.
It is believed the participation money of around £6m given to the tournament by the South African franchises is still set to be available and distributed to the participating 12 northern hemisphere sides.
While that relatively small pot of gold would prove a financial benefit in testing times, the element of competition over the next two months has undeniably been diluted compared to the English and French competitions.
How have we got here?
The decision was made in December 2020 to shorten the Pro14 regular season to create the new Rainbow Cup.
The competition was meant to feature the Pro14’s dozen clubs in addition to the new four South African former Super Rugby sides, who will enter the competition permanently from the 2021-22 season.
The Pro14 regular tournament had started with 12 teams with Cheetahs and Southern Kings, the original South African sides in the competition since 2017, no longer involved.
The European sides took part in the tournament, playing each other once up until January 2021 before a decision was made on the final format.
That saw the tournament cut short, with play-offs ditched and places in the two conferences decided after 16 matches rather than a possible 22 if they had played each other twice.
- Sam Warburton labels Pro14 Rainbow Cup ‘mishmash competition’
- Rainbow Cup: South African teams denied entry for new tournament
Perennial winners Leinster defeated Munster in the final in March to be crowned champions and the path was opened for the Rainbow Cup.
It was viewed as a way to generate revenue before the new South African sides join the league next season and provide Springbok players with competitive action before the British and Irish Lions’ arrival.
The cross-hemisphere tournament was scheduled to continue through to a final on 19 June.
The Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and Lions were due to stay in a bubble for the second half of the tournament and fly to Europe for rounds four to six.
That idea was finally scuppered this week after Pro14 bosses admitted no formal approvals were in place to allow the South African teams to enter the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland because of Covid-19 concerns.
So two tournaments, experimental sides, local derbies, possible byes and rest weekends will follow ahead of potential finales in mid-June. Uncertainty over the second half of the fixture list remains.
The Welsh regions are doing their best to try to make the most of the situation as they start the competition with three more derbies.
“These are games that have been put on the calendar and we are just happy to be out there playing rugby,” said Cardiff Blues director of rugby Dai Young.
“It is disappointing they (the South Africans sides) are not involved, but it’s a difficult world at the moment and things are changing rapidly.
“We know where we are for the first three games and we can concentrate on them. For the first couple of games we will definitely go mix and match.
“We have had a lot of players who have not played a lot of rugby and I want to see all our squad in action before we go into next season.”
Dragons director of rugby Dean Ryan disagreed with Warburton’s assessment.
“Sam’s entitled to his opinion,” said Ryan. “This was a stepping stone to a tournament which is quite clear next season, the introduction of the South African sides.
“Every tournament has had to make amendments. Look at European competition, that is not something anybody would have been happy with.
“Let’s look at next year: the introduction of the South Africans for us will be a significant challenge and will change the tournament.
“There is a bit of disappointment around missing the opportunity to play against some of the southern hemisphere sides.
“We’ll select accordingly, which still has a big focus around our senior players to keep some momentum.
“We saw the opportunity to get probably seven or eight of our youngsters some really good competitive rugby over the next few weeks.”
Ryan believes there will be incentives with Wales and British and Irish Lions selections on the horizon.
“There won’t be any lack of intensity in three derby games,” he added.
“The opportunities of Lions and reshaped Wales tours is enough of an attraction, certainly in the first three or four games, to get some names on Wayne’s (Wales coach Pivac) sheet.
“The next three weeks will be lively and then we’ll see where we go from there.”
Trials for laws
The Rainbow Cups will conduct trials for three experimental laws which have already been used in New Zealand’s Super Rugby Aotearoa and the Australian version of the competition.
The most controversial is teams being able to replace players who have been sent off. After being down to 14 men for 20 minutes the red-carded player can be replaced by a team-mate to bring back the full complement.
“I don’t know what to make of it,” said Young.
“Six months ago I probably would have been against it, but there are so many borderline decisions now with the high tackles and a lot more people sent off as we try to clear the game up.
“I am probably more comfortable with it now. It is a trial and we will have a better view after being a part of it.”
The ‘captain’s challenge’ is also an intriguing suggestion. Captains will be allowed one challenge per game to review try-scoring and foul play up to the 75th minute. In the last five minutes a captain can challenge any decision, provided he has not made a previous challenge.
“The conversation on the captain’s challenge is going to be interesting,” said Scarlets head coach Glenn Delaney.
“The one thing about the challenge is it’s not a place for the officials to not make decisions. They’ll still make their calls and have their TMO (television match official).
“We still have huge confidence in the officials to do their job and should we need to raise something on the field, or the boys want to review it back, we’ve got a plan in place on how we deal with that.”
The final experiment is when attackers are held up over the try-line, the defending team will drop out from their goal-line.
The rule will also apply to in-goal knock-ons and when defenders ground the ball from attacking kicks. Under existing laws, attacking teams are awarded a scrum five metres from the opposition try-line when they are held up.
So something novel may emerge from the Rainbow Cup over the next couple of months.
But if it is jeopardy and competitive rugby you are after, this might not be the tournament for you.