Celtic Rugby and the South African Rugby Union have today confirmed that the Central Cheetahs and the Southern Kings will join an expanded Guinness Pro14 tournament in time for the upcoming 2017/18 season.
The South African teams have joined the former Celtic League after being cut from the Southern Hemisphere Super Rugby competition.
The Southern Kings are based in the southern coastal city of Port Elizabeth, while the Cheetahs hail from the central city of Bloemfontein.
The 14 teams have been split into two conferences to avoid adding extra rounds of games but all derby fixtures between sides from the same countries have been retained.
Munster and Connacht have been matched with Ospreys, Cardiff, Glasgow, Zebre and Cheetahs in Conference A while Leinster and Ulster are in Conference B along with champions Scarlets, Dragons, Edinburgh, Treviso and the Kings.
Sides will play the teams in their conference twice, the derby teams in the other conference twice and the non- derby teams in the other conference once for a total of 21 games.
The Italian, Scottish and South African teams will play an additional derby fixture to even out the schedule.
Quarter-Finals have been introduced, allowing six clubs to reach the knock-out stages (teams 1-3 from each Conference).
The top three clubs from each conference will qualify for the Champions Cup while the team with the highest points total outside of those six teams across both conferences will claim the final Champions Cup place, replacing the former system where each country was guaranteed at least one place.
South African clubs will not be eligible to qualify for European tournaments.
The conferences have been designed to include an equal number of teams from each union in both conferences and have a competitive balance based upon the previous season's final placings - they will be reset each season to maintain this.
The fixtures for rounds 1-13 will be confirmed next week after the Championship's broadcast partners have made their selections for live television broadcasts and the clubs have been consulted.
Teams travelling to South Africa will be guaranteed seven days between games and when possible will play multiple games per trip.
"The arrival of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings marks a bold and exciting new chapter for the Guinness PRO14 as a global rugby championship," Pro14 CEO Martin Anayi said.
"As a country, South Africa is a rugby powerhouse of over 55 million people. These teams already operate to the high standards demanded by Super Rugby and they will add to the quality of our tournament."
"Our Unions and World Rugby are committed to broadening the game and this move is evidence of our ambition to lead the way in growing the club game beyond our own borders, which in turn will unlock the true potential of this tournament.
"Expansion is in the DNA of the championship and ever since the Celtic League kicked off in 2001, cross-border competition has thrived."
"This is a natural evolution for the championship and not only will the calibre of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings grow audiences, interest and the commercial base for the tournament and our clubs, it is a move that also lays the foundations for years to come."
Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby, said the decision to accept an invitation to play in the northern hemisphere competition was a ground-breaking move that added a whole new dimension to the South African season.
"This development is as exciting as the launch of Super Rugby itself back in 1996," said Roux. "It marks the start of a new adventure for rugby in South Africa with a number of exciting opportunities.
"It will not be without its challenges in aligning with a competition in a different part of the calendar and in very different playing conditions; but it is also a fantastic opportunity for South African rugby to widen our rugby horizons."