The Blue Bulls celebrate (Gallo)
The Irish Rugby Football Union would be “very supportive” of the four South African Super Rugby franchises competing in what would become a PRO16 tournament, said IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora on Monday.
Nucifora said the benefits of having them join what is at present the PRO14 would help develop Irish rugby and challenge the players.
Exploratory talks to add the four Super Rugby teams — the Bulls, Stormers, Sharks and Lions — began in September after the South African Rugby Union voted in favour of the move.
Nucifora, a 58-year-old Australian, added that the talks were at an “advanced stage” for them to join a competition that is made up of Welsh and Scottish regions, Irish provinces and Italian clubs.
Two South African teams Southern Kings and Cheetahs joined for the 2017/18 season altering it from the PRO12 to the PRO14.
However, they made little impact and withdrew at the end of last season leaving just 12 teams, although the competition opted not to change its name again.
Leinster are the dominant force having won seven titles. including the last three editions.
Nucifora, though, says that the four Super Rugby franchises would be potential game changers, in all sorts of ways.
“Covid certainly made some changes in the Southern Hemisphere with unpicking the SANZAAR relationship and South African are looking for alternatives in their competitions,” said Nucifora at a press briefing on Monday.
“The IRFU would be very supportive of South Africa entering the PRO14 competition and potentially making it a PRO16.”
Nucifora, who has been in his post since 2014, said rugby, especially after the year it has had with Covid-19 wreaking havoc on the calendar, needs to think outside the box.
“We think that Irish rugby needs to be ambitious, we think that the PRO14 needs to be ambitious,” he said.
“We think that by having those four strong South African teams entering our competitions, it will help develop the game in the PRO14, it will help develop Irish rugby, it will help develop Irish players by stretching us and by challenging our teams and also our players.”
Nucifora, who oversaw a largely successful spell under former head coach Joe Schmidt including two historic wins over the All Blacks and the 2018 Six Nations Grand Slam, says there are time constraints on making “those types of decisions.”
“There is a lot going on behind the scenes at the moment to try and see the possibility of that happening in the New Year,” he said.
Nucifora said, though, it would be wise to seize the chance of getting the South Africans on board.
“If this opportunity is here now to do that, it may not always be here,” he said.
“So we have to take that opportunity while it exists because whether we are ready or not, it’s here and I believe it’s the best thing for Irish rugby going forward.”