Richard Cockerill has launched a staunch defence of the PRO14’s pursuit of South African involvement, and has hit back at Sam Warburton’s criticism.
The Edinburgh coach claims there is a future for South African rugby in both the PRO14 and indeed the Six Nations, but admits the competition needs some stability in order to succeed.
Warburton himself has once again advocated for a British and Irish league, a proposition he admits is unlikely to happen, and said the pursuit of South African sides was evidence PRO14 bosses were just following the money, rather than what would make the best product.
His criticism comes amid suggestions SA Rugby paid €6 million participation fee to allow the Sharks, Stormers, Lions and Bulls to take part in the Rainbow Cup, only to then pull out of cross-continent fixtures due to Covid restrictions.
Speaking at the launch of the new British and Irish Lions jersey, Warburton said the tournament has now become a “mishmash competition” and accused the PRO14 of “almost shamelessly going wherever the money is”.
However, Cockerill says South African involvement in the PRO14 is here to stay, and has even suggested the Springboks themselves could one day be part of an expanded Six Nations.
The former England international told the Scotsman : “He’s paid to say things isn’t he?”
“If he doesn’t say things he doesn’t get paid. So he’s got to talk about something.
“What we probably need is some stability in the league. We choose what teams are in there, choose a format and we stick with it for a number of years so we can actually see if this works.
“The concept of what’s happening is a good one, it’s an exciting one, and clearly it has to make commercial sense because it’s a professional sport. But I think it’s a sound idea, let’s see where it gets to.
“I can still see South Africa playing in the Six or Seven Nations at some stage because of the time zones and personally that makes perfect sense to me. So we’re happy to have the South African teams. Everybody is entitled to their opinion and Sam’s entitled to his. But he’s a journalist so he has to make up something to talk about.”
Despite admitting that stability is needed to make the league a success, Cockerill has also admitted he’d welcome having the South African sides on board for an expanded PRO16, a move that is set to see another evolutionary step in the competition next season.
After initially starting out as a Welsh-Scottish League in 1999, it then developed into a Celtic League with the addition of the Irish provinces, before then welcoming Italian sides in 2010.
Then, in 2017, South African duo the Cheetahs and Stormers were brought in, and Cockerill believes the competition has to remain open to new additions in order to grow.
“There are only so many times Edinburgh can play Glasgow,” Cockerill added.
“I think it’s important that we try to grow the competition and make it as strong as possible.
“With the season structure, hopefully it will be a competition that everybody wants to watch and players want to play in. We want to see our best players play as often as possible for their clubs.
“I think the rationale for this tournament [the Rainbow Cup] was a good one. Moving into the future, I think any way to make the competition stronger and have good teams in it is worthwhile looking at.”