The South African Rugby Union has confirmed it will pull teams out of Super Rugby in favour of playing in Europe's PRO14 league, blaming New Zealand for the sudden break-up of the southern hemisphere competition.
The decision was made after a vote of SARU's provincial unions and the defection could come into effect as soon as next year if an agreement is reached with PRO Rugby Championship, which runs the PRO14.
It would mean the top four teams in South Africa - the Bulls, Stormers, Sharks and Lions - will play their domestic rugby against clubs from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy instead of their traditional rivals in New Zealand and Australia.
The world champion Springboks would still play Tests against New Zealand, Australia and Argentina in the four-nation Rugby Championship.
Realistically, however, South Africa's participation in that championship might also be reconsidered once its top domestic teams' seasons align with the northern hemisphere.
SARU called Tuesday's move a vote for a "northern hemisphere future".
SARU also said it was forced by New Zealand's "unilateral" decision to organise its own domestic competition, or possibly a trans-Tasman competition involving Australian and other teams for next year.
That appeared to be because of uncertainty over if a traditional Super Rugby tournament could go ahead amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, SARU said it considered it a slight to not be consulted.
"Our members are excited about the prospect of closer alignment with PRO Rugby Championship and seeking a northern hemisphere future, but we would not have been taking this decision but for actions elsewhere," SARU chief executive Jurie Roux said.
"We will advise our SANZAAR partners of the general meeting's decision."
The decision comes off the back of Rugby Australia Chairman Hamish McLennan's appearance on Kiwi show The Breakdown, where the Aussie called for his trans-Tasman neighbours to show them "respect".
McLennan said New Zealand Rugby went about organising a competition for next year the wrong way.
"I think the fundamental issue from us is that you've got to respect our position," McLennan told The Breakdown.
"We know we haven't been as good as we should have been and there are some systemic issues that we're dealing with within Australian rugby from grassroots right through to our high performance area, but if you look at the combined history of both countries on and off the field we're very close partners, brothers and sisters, so I would say respect what we have to do.
"Over the long-term, if we can afford to get five teams into a 10 or 12 team (trans-Tasman) competition we will deliver for you guys, but it just takes time...
"I'm faced with the decision of cutting two or three teams out of our competition and we took great offence to the way that was handled and the way we were instructed how the competition was going to come together, and I don't think that was either fair or the right way to handle it.
"But we're prepared to accept that that's all water under the bridge, but we've got to get focused on building a new competition for next year and beyond."
Despite Roux's comments blaming New Zealand, there have been strong rumours for years that South Africa was seeking to leave its southern hemisphere partnership and play in European competitions, given the similar time zone.
South Africa may still have one team in a reduced future Super Rugby tournament, with plans to negotiate with SANZAAR to put the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs in any new version of the tournament.
The Cheetahs have been part of the PRO14 since 2017 after being cut from Super Rugby but will go the other way and rejoin Super Rugby if an agreement is reached between SARU and SANZAAR.
Cape Town - With Staff writers