By Michael Bolton
After long consideration and many changes to the format of the competition, the PRO14 Rainbow Cup gets underway this weekend. This competition was originally planned to be a first glimpse for fans to see South African opposition against European sides ahead of the Lions tour in the summer and the PRO16 next season. However, due to safety concerns, inter-continental games will not take place due to restrictions by the South African government, meaning they will not be part of the competition.
This will be disappointing to fans for a number of reasons. The Cell C Sharks, DHL Stormers, Emirates Lions and Vodacom Bulls were set to participate in the competition, playing each other in the first three rounds before taking on European sides, possibly the Irish provinces. This would have seen World Cup winners such as Makazole Mapimpi, Steven Kitsoff, Lukhanyo Am and Springboks captain Siya Kolisi play in the competition, adding some much–needed quality to the PRO14.
The league received criticism after poor performances by some of the sides in Europe, with Scarlets and Edinburgh at the receiving end of heavy losses to Sale Sharks and Racing Metro respectively. The accommodations that were made for this competition meant sacrifices had to be made for the previous campaign. As a result, both Connacht and Ulster suffered as they received no reward for finishing second in their groups, with the final contesting of group winners Leinster and Munster. Ulster fly half Ian Madigan recently spoke on the House of Rugby podcast over his frustrations of this outcome, as his sides only two defeats coming to champions Leinster.
Despite the setbacks this competition has already faced before it kicks off, there is still plenty to look forward to, especially for the Irish provinces. The competition kicks off with inter provincial derbies, which always bring a competitive edge to the game, with international and even Lions spots up for grabs for some players.
It should also be noted the rule changes that will be implemented through this tournament. For Red Cards, the team will be able to replace the dismissed player after 20 minutes. Red cards have been topical recently and this will be interesting to see if this leads to more dismissals within the game. For players held up over the line or defending players touching the ball down in the in goal area, a goal line drop out will be given.
For challenging referee’s, teams will be given one captain challenge per game. The captain can challenge the referee on try scoring or foul play incidents, or any decision in the last five minutes. Similar trials are being seen in the Super Rugby in New Zealand and Australia, perhaps showing the PRO14 to be an open, attractive watching league in Europe, rather than the physical dominance of the English premiership.