On Top Of The Moon has already taken a look at what the league structure might look like in a Pro 14 setup here. There are plenty of other points to ponder ahead of the official announcement – rumoured to be as soon this Saturday (15th July).
Will the South African sides be eligible to compete in the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup?
Meritocracy was due to arrive in the Pro 12 this season with the top 7 sides qualifying for the Champions Cup. No longer would there be a guaranteed spot for each of the 4 nations making up the league. So will the Cheetahs and Kings be joining the ‘European’ competitions? The change in qualification would seem to simplify things in that respect. The other participants in the form of the Aviva Premiership and the Top 14 may need won over though.
What shape will the playoffs take?
An increase to 6 teams qualifying for the post season, entailing an extra week of matches, has been heavily trailed in the press. This is likely to see an additional round featuring:
3rd v 6th
4th v 5th
Before moving into the semi-finals with the top seeds hosting the lowest ranked winner from week 1 of the playoffs and the other match being a home game for the 2nd placed side.
The lower positions could also face a playoff too. If true meritocracy is introduced then that 7th spot, just outside the championship playoffs, carries the not insignificant prize of a Champions Cup place. The question then becomes how to find that 7th place finisher?
Option 1: Two-legged playoffs for final placings between the sides in each rank in the conference structure ie 4th v 4th, 5th v 5th etc. So in this case the 4th placed teams in each group would be competing for Champions Cup qualification.
Option 2: Separate 6 team playoffs, using the same structure as the championship playoffs.
9th v 12th
10th v 11th
7th v lower ranked winner from 1st round
8th v higher ranked winner from 1st round
This could see as many as 12 teams involved after the end of the regular season, with 8 of them guaranteed an additional home fixture.
Will the conferences be fixed or floating?
The initial setup will most probably be ranked to ensure the conferences are of a similar strength. Based on the most recent completed season it should be possible for each group’s average finishing positions in 2016/17 to be almost identical. So do the league set the pools to carry forwards in future seasons or keep balancing the strengths of each group?
There would always be 2 Irish, 2 Welsh and 1 from each of the 3 other nations. The main moves would be to ensure the 2 highest ranked Welsh or Irish sides from the previous season are not in the same pool in the subsequent campaign. On the flip side, fixed conferences allow for rivalries to grow and build in a way that cannot happen if there is constant chopping and changing.
Where do the Americans fit in?
Will the Italian sides consolidate into one and the rumoured Washington DC franchise just slot into that freed up space? If the league does expand to 15 what does that mean for the conference structure? It also seems unlikely that a single team in such a potentially lucrative market as the US will be enough.
With the possibility of more US sides in the wings; 4 other South African provinces carefully watching the Cheetahs and Kings progress; and other European nations like Georgia and Germany looking for a route into professional rugby; the crucial question becomes – just how big can the league get?
What will the league be called?
OTOTM has taken a look at this before (although not entirely seriously):
The one unifying characteristic among nearly all of the participating countries is that they are linked by the Atlantic Ocean. The [insert sponsor’s name] Atlantic Rugby Championship appears to be the current front runner. This might limit sponsorship opportunities though as there may well be a need to avoid the letters B, F and N in front of the ARC abbreviation…