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Craig Lewis

Cheetahs, Kings going Pro


Pro14 in SA Rugby magazine Pro14 in SA Rugby magazine

South African rugby has taken the first steps on a new journey up north, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

On 1 August 2017, the rugby landscape underwent a seismic shift when the Cheetahs and Kings were officially confirmed as the newest members of a new-look Pro14 competition. Although this move into cross-hemisphere rugby was one of the worst-kept secrets, the formal announcement in August heralded a bold new dawn for South African rugby.

Rugby in December? You better believe it. The Cheetahs against Munster in Bloemfontein? It’s happening. All in the name of opening the door to a new market in the northern hemisphere, while widening the footprint of South African rugby in a playing landscape that is quickly accelerating towards a global calendar.

‘This development is as significant as the launch of the Super 12 in 1996,’ SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux enthused. ‘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 playing horizons. This time next year, South African provincial teams will be competing in 11 countries across five continents.’

It all sounds good, with the two SA sides heading into an expanded Pro14 featuring the leading clubs from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy. For the Cheetahs and Kings, the blow of leaving Super Rugby has also been softened by the allure of a competition with different opposition and a new commercial market.

Let’s look at the positives first. Ultimately, it was only a matter of time before South African rugby ‘broke ranks’ with Sanzaar and began to explore the opportunities of competing in the northern hemisphere. What the Pro14 has provided, is the platform for SA Rugby to keep a finger in each pie, which has seen them make a first entry into the European market while remaining committed to Super Rugby. The powers that be have also found a way to appease their obligations to the Cheetahs and Kings, who were contracted to play Super Rugby until the end of the current Sanzaar agreement in 2020.

In certain ways, it is a win-win. For one, the Super Rugby product is no longer what it used to be, with Roux admitting as much when he conceded earlier this year that poor decisions were taken when the competition moved away from the highly successful Super 12 format. The expansion of the tournament has only led to further one-sided results, while the convoluted competition structure has contributed to some farcical playoff fixtures. The time for change has arrived. It’s the reason Sanzaar has moved to cut three teams from Super Rugby, and it’s why SA Rugby has begun to look north.

In doing so, it found a welcoming partner in the now renamed Pro14, with its organisers having been on the lookout for further expansion opportunities, and a means to expand the tournament’s financial gains in the increasingly competitive and lucrative world of professional rugby. The introduction of SA sides will achieve just that, with reports suggesting the former Pro12 could enjoy as much as a 50% increase in revenue, due predominantly to new TV rights, while each of the existing clubs are said to be in line to receive an additional £500,000 (R8.8-million).

So, the penny-counters up north are happy, while for SA Rugby this could really just be the beginning of a productive new venture as they try tapping into a different market in a similar time zone. After all, the travel factor has always compromised the integrity of Super Rugby, with no South African side having won a final in Australasia in the 22 years since its inception.

Now all the Cheetahs and Kings have to do is hop over the Mediterranean sea on an overnight flight; with no concerns over jet-lag or needing to dedicate a few days to recovery once they arrive. It’s effectively a step towards structuring the game by time zones as opposed to hemispheres.

‘This is a whole new ball game for rugby in South Africa and we’re proud to be trailblazers,’ Cheetahs CEO Harold Verster said. ‘This is a wonderful opportunity up north, and we’ve seen with the schedule that it will be better in terms of travel commitments and game times.’

This year, though, the Cheetahs will face a particularly delicate balancing act.

As defending Currie Cup champions, new director of rugby Franco Smith admitted that their first priority was to perform well in the domestic competition. But the matter is complicated by the fact that the first few rounds of the Pro14, which start in early September, will overlap with the Currie Cup.

‘We will take a strategic decision on how to best manage the squad during that time. It is a challenge, but our mindset is to take it one day at a time,’ said Cheetahs head coach Rory Duncan. ‘The players are happy to handle the Currie Cup and Pro14, but obviously we will have to discuss player management, because we are staring down the barrel of 17 games without a break.’

While the Cheetahs are likely to rotate their players between the two tournaments, the Kings would be expected to field their strongest side in the Pro14, as they have been cut from the Premier Division. There is also word that the Currie Cup could kick off earlier next year to minimise the competition overlap.

Yet, to digress for a moment, one has to lament the manner in which the historic Currie Cup has indirectly, but undeniably, been downgraded in a saturated rugby schedule that sees the domestic tournament overlap with Super Rugby and now the Pro14. Similarly, one has to question SA Rugby’s decision to sustain six franchises, instead of using the top players from the existing Super Rugby franchises to better stock the remaining four sides. An argument could certainly be made that this move is effectively serving to spread SA rugby’s limited player resources even thinner. However, this does appear to be where the game is going as the expansion of competitions and the potential commercial base continues at a rapid rate.

‘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,’ Pro14 CEO Martin Anayi said. ‘It’s a move that lays the foundations for years to come. The appeal of professional club rugby has never been greater and we aim to be at the forefront of the game’s growth around the world.’

As it is, there has been persistent talk that teams from the US, Canada, Germany and even Georgia could be the next to join the Pro14, and yet one has to wonder whether this wouldn’t simply serve to further dilute the quality of a tournament that has never been the elite competition in Europe. That honour belongs to the European Champions Cup, which includes cash-rich French powerhouse clubs and leading sides from the highly successful English Premiership. Indeed, it shouldn’t be overlooked that, as it stands, the Cheetahs and Kings are ineligible to qualify for the Champions or Challenge Cups.

Until then, there’s no point in South Africa’s best teams heading north unless they can compete against the top teams from England and France. But herein lies the rub: there are talks that the European qualification process could be reviewed next year to possibly allow for the South African sides to compete for promotion. In theory, if all goes well, who’s to say we won’t see the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers joining the European party after 2020?

‘During discussions, some of the other unions said they’d want to look at joining the Pro14 rather than stay where they are,’ Verster conceded to Cape Talk radio. ‘There are lots of positives; we’re in it for three years and then we’ll see from there. The upside is, if we are able to enter into the European Cup, for example, which is still up for negotiation – not for this year, but for the year after – there is the potential for some substantial increases in the financial gains for us.’

Make no mistake, this is a bold new dawn for South African rugby to widen its horizons, and the sky is the limit.

– This article first appeared in the September 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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