Sunday rugby, triple-headers, regional championships and a new competition name on the rugby calendar are all part of a major makeover for the opening provincial competition of the South African season.
The SuperSport Rugby Challenge will kick off on the weekend of 22/23 April and will feature the country’s 14 provincial unions together with Namibia’s Welwitschias in a 13-week tournament that is set to take rugby in a whole new direction.
Professional rugby will also make a starring appearance at well-known community rugby centres for televised rugby festivals. Venues such as the Wolfson Stadium in Port Elizabeth, Bill Jardine Stadium in Johannesburg, and the venue of last year’s club rugby Gold Cup Final, Impala Rugby Club in Rustenburg, will host Challenge matches.
As part of the new look, the SuperSport Rugby Challenge will SuperStack matches with as many as three games hosted back-to-back at a single venue – one of which will be a local club rugby match.
The competition will also be divided into three regions – north, south and central – with local bragging rights up for grabs.
“The SuperSport Rugby Challenge will take professional rugby to places it has never been before - both literally and metaphorically,” said Jurie Roux, SA Rugby CEO.
“A new playing day, new venues and new match schedules will set the SuperSport Rugby Challenge apart.
“We’re very excited to see the response to moving some of the matches away from the professional venues. The passion for the game burns brightly in our rugby heartlands, and together with SuperSport this is precisely where we will be going to share that excitement.”
The tournament will comprise six-pool matches every weekend for 10 weeks, followed by seven knockout games. The 15 teams are divided into three geographical pools, with each playing home and away against the other four teams in their pool over the 10-week period.
The top two teams from each Pool, together with the two third-placed teams with the most log points, will qualify for the quarter-finals, which take place on Sunday 2 July, followed by the semi-finals a week later and the final on Sunday 16 July.
The SuperSport Rugby Challenge will be officially launched at Bill Jardine Stadium on Tuesday, 11 April when the full details and other innovations will be revealed.
“The rugby environment is also changing at a rapid pace and if we don’t continue to innovate, we will be left behind,” said Roux.
“The advent of Sunday rugby was unthinkable a few years ago but changing leisure patterns and the success of last year’s Gold Cup semi-finals, which drew a combined crowd of 9,000 people, suggest that Sundays have appeal for modern audiences, especially for families.”
Gideon Khobane, SuperSport CEO, said: “Our partnership with SA Rugby in particular goes way beyond international and Vodacom Super Rugby. We see a vital role as partners in contributing to the pipeline of players, with the SuperSport Rugby Challenge a powerful vehicle to contribute towards that.
“We fervently hope the SuperSport Rugby Challenge captures the imagination and takes high-level rugby into areas where it has not necessarily been seen before.
“We at SuperSport are excited to be bringing the best of community rugby to urban and rural areas. We also look forward to unveiling some exciting broadcast initiatives and want to be a part of something special, something that nurtures the massive wealth of talent out there.”
The television spotlight is also set to shine on club rugby, with each Sunday Festival featuring an eagerly anticipated local derby as part of the day’s activities.
“When you take rugby back to its roots, club rugby is a vital part of the mix,” said Roux.
“Historically there was a vital link between club and provincial rugby that has largely been lost in the professional era. The SuperSport Rugby Challenge will hopefully change that by also showcasing some of SA’s biggest provincial club derbies.
“Add in the fact that these days they also double as official Gold Cup qualifying matches, and we have all the ingredients necessary for club rugby to thrive: packed grounds, TV exposure and a pathway to the top for our best amateur players.”
The SuperSport Rugby Challenge Pools are:
•North: Vodacom Blue Bulls, Xerox Golden Lions, Falcons, Steval Pumas, Namibia Welwitschias.
•Central: Toyota Free State Cheetahs, Down Touch Griffons, Tafel Lager Griquas, Leopards, Cell C Sharks XV.
•South: Boland Cavaliers, Border Bulldogs, EP Kings, SWD Eagles, DHL Western Province.