Cheetahs have earned PRO14 place

The Cheetahs should not be kicked out of the PRO14 if the competition expands to include more South African teams, writes DYLAN JACK.

Rumours of a PRO14 expansion have grown stronger and stronger since it was first reported by Sunday newspaper Rapport. The latest on this front suggests that the PRO14 could become the PRO16, with two more South African teams involved.

However, the twist could be that both the Cheetahs and Kings may then be left out in order to fully accommodate the four South African Super Rugby teams: the Vodacom Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and Lions.

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If this does happen, it would be extremely harsh on the Cheetahs who, it should be said, have coped very well with the competitiveness of the PRO14 despite having to deal with plenty of challenges along the way.

In their debut season in 2017-18, the Cheetahs came straight out of a disappointing Vodacom Super Rugby campaign but still managed to make the PRO14 quarter-finals, edging out the likes of Ulster and the Cardiff Blues.

Unfortunately, the team would then suffer the first of a few exoduses, losing 17 players – including captain Francois Venter and Springboks Uzair Cassiem and Johan Goosen – as well as coach Rory Duncan, leaving Franco Smith with a big rebuild.

For context: the Bulls were left with a similar rebuild after losing 18 first-team regulars following the 2019 Super Rugby season. The impact of that on the Bulls’ 2020 season was clear to see as they went from finishing as South Africa’s strongest team in the playoffs to losing five of their opening six games in 2020.

Aside from the rebuild, 2018 brought its own challenges as the Cheetahs had to divide their squad between the PRO14 and the Currie Cup. Unsurprisingly, this took a toll on their results as the Cheetahs finished bottom of the Currie Cup after effectively fielding an U21 side for most of their games, while they won just eight of their 21 fixtures and finished second from bottom in their PRO14 conference.

To Smith and co’s credit, 2019 was a far better year for the Bloemfontein side. The benefit of a full pre-season for the side was clear. Further, with the Currie Cup rescheduled to be held between July and September, it did not interfere with their PRO14 season.

After claiming the 2019 Currie Cup title, the Cheetahs made an incredibly impressive start to the PRO14 season. Sweeping aside Munster, Ulster and the Glasgow Warriors – who were admittedly understrength after the World Cup –  in Bloemfontein gave the Cheetahs the kick-start they didn’t have before.

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However, the current season was not without its bumps as it was confirmed that Smith would be leaving the side to coach Italy, while core players such as Henco Venter and Ox Nche decided to move elsewhere for a new challenge. The Cheetahs would also lose hooker Joseph Dweba as well as lock pair Sintu Manjezi and Walt Steenkamp after the season was halted.

While this clearly unsettled the team somewhat, new head coach Hawies Fourie was still able to keep the team on track and they were still contesting for a place in the playoffs before the Covid-19 pandemic intervened.

The Cheetahs are well respected in the PRO14 for the exciting brand of rugby that they try to play – it is worth noting that they are second only to Glasgow and Leinster in tries scored this season – and are clearly set to play an important role in keeping promising talent in the Free State.

With a number of talented young players set to come through at the Cheetahs in the next couple of years, it would be a mistake for them to be dumped from the PRO14 just as they are starting to adjust to the tournament.

Photo: Johan Pretorius/Gallo Images

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