There will be a host of changes to the national club rugby championship from next year, with the non-university champions of Namibia and Zimbabwe set to join a rebranded 20-team tournament.
Following a decision from Saru's executive council, the Community Cup, which replaced the old national club championships in 2013, will move from its pre-season time slot to provide a 'more logical post-season climax to the South African club season' and will now be known as the Gold Cup.
The Gold Cup will also have an international flavour from 2016 after the decision for clubs from Namibia and Zimbabwe to join the fray along with 18 of South Africa’s best open clubs.
'When we launched the Community Cup three years ago, club rugby wasn’t in a good space,' Saru CEO Jurie Roux commented. 'The old club championships did not have a sponsor, television coverage was virtually non-existent, crowds were poor, players weren’t well conditioned and the standard of play was average at best.
'We hoped the Community Cup would be a catalyst for the revival of the club game at all levels, and I’m happy to say we’ve achieved those initial goals and can now move on to the next phase.'
Roux said the addition of clubs from Namibia and Zimbabwe would expand the Gold Cup into a true African club tournament.
'Strategically this decision is in line with our commitment to assist our neighbours so that they have the best possible chance of qualifying alongside South Africa for the 2019 World Cup in Japan. Namibia’s best players will benefit from playing in the expanded Currie Cup in 2016 and the incorporation of their champion club into our tournament structures will help strengthen their next tier of players.
'Zimbabwe came within a whisker of qualifying for the World Cup and participation in the Gold Cup will likewise revive their top domestic league and expose their players to a higher level of competition.'
The Gold Cup will kick off on 10 September 2016, with 20 clubs once again competing in a World Cup-style format, with five weeks of pool stages and the top two from each group progressing to the knockout stages. The tournament will feature 47 matches in all. In a departure from the Easter weekend play-off format, which was a hallmark of the Community Cup era, the quarter-finals, semi-finals and the Cup final itself will be hosted by participating clubs.
Durbanville-Bellville will return in 2016 to defend the Gold Cup trophy they lifted in Rustenburg earlier this year. They, together with the Namibian and Zimbabwean teams, will be joined by the best non-university clubs of the 14 provincial unions, plus Limpopo from the 2015 season.
A full list of the participating teams will be confirmed early in the new year. The remaining two qualifier slots will be decided by 2016’s provincial leagues, with those teams who finish as the best open clubs in their leagues next year playing off for the last two Gold Cup slots.