‘Southern hemisphere rugby has always carried this wonder’

Fans of the game in the northern hemisphere are warmly welcoming the arrival of South African teams to an expanded PRO16, writes DANIEL GALLAN in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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A new era is dawning. After 28 years of Super Rugby, South Africa’s best domestic rugby teams will no longer be taking on their counterparts within their own hemisphere. From this year onwards, the Sharks, Stormers, Bulls and Lions will be squaring up against clubs from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy.

Of course, this is not wholly new territory. Once they were booted out of Super Rugby, the Cheetahs and Kings competed in the Pro14 for three seasons from 2017 to 2020. But even the most ardent fans could not claim that their stint was a happy one.

The Cheetahs won 26 of their 56 games for a win percentage of 46. In their debut campaign they reached the quarter-finals, only to be hammered by Scarlets 43-8 in Llanelli and they have failed to reach the playoffs since. As for the Kings, three years yielded just four wins confining them to a hat-trick of wooden spoons in their division. After an initial boost born out of curiosity fans tuned out, with the 1 142 people turning up for the visit of Leinster in November 2018 a particularly low point.

The four incoming heavies will provide a stiffer challenge. And for fans in Europe, this change cannot come soon enough.

‘I’m delighted to watch these new teams and I’m convinced they will raise the standard of the whole competition,’ says Alan Mooney, public relations officer for the official supporters club of Leinster Rugby. ‘We know all the teams are stacked with World Cup winners. They’ll bring something fresh. This competition has been desperate for something like this for a long time.’

Much like Super Rugby, the Pro14 had become stale and mundane. Last season, Leinster went unbeaten as they completed a hat-trick of title triumphs, winning all 15 of their matches, scoring 74 tries and conceding just 28 in the process.

‘Winning is great but we want a challenge,’ Mooney says. ‘The only game we lost last year was the European Cup quarter-final against Saracens. Ulster also got hammered against Toulouse in the quarters. The Pro14 isn’t competitive enough so when our teams play against French or English teams they’re not prepared. The South Africans will raise the standard.’

This optimism is shared by supporters of clubs lower down the table. Glasgow Warriors, who last lifted the Pro12 title in 2015, will also benefit from the shakeup.

‘Scottish teams can’t keep hold of their best players because they don’t have the resources,’ explains Robert Stewart, chairperson of Glasgow’s official supporters club known as the XVIth Warrior.

‘Guys like Finn Russell [at Racing 92] and Stuart Hogg [Exeter Chiefs] understandably take their talent elsewhere. Money comes from television and if the South Africans bring more eyeballs, that will drive revenue that will hopefully filter down to the clubs. And if they improve the competition, which I’m certain they will, that will attract neutrals and increase viewership. They may nudge the Scottish sides down the league table at first, but it will be beneficial down the road.’

For any long-term benefits to materialise it is imperative that the standard of rugby remains exhilarating. This will require teams on either side of the equator to field their strongest outfits week in and week out.

‘After speaking to a few of my fellow fans, there is a worry that the South Africans won’t send all their big names,’ says Grant Berni, chairperson of the Ospreys Supporters Club

‘We’ve seen this with Leinster and some of the Irish teams who know they can beat the rest of us with a squad that only has a few 1st XV regulars. There will be an initial boost in interest because the teams will be new, but if fans realise it’s a team of fillers, they’ll tune out. The product is competing with the Premiership in England and the Top 14 in France. It has to stack up.’

Another concern has to do with travel. Berni bemoans the fact he will have to endure a 14-hour flight to watch his team play an away game but cannot drive a few miles to the grounds of Bristol, Gloucester or Wasps in England.

‘If I’m honest, I’d prefer to see an Anglo-Welsh cup,’ Berni says, insisting he speaks for many Welsh fans. ‘It’s a shame because away fans bring so much. It’ll be difficult to get to South Africa. But I’d love to go if I could.’

Mooney says the distance and cost – which he calculates may exceed £2 000 (R41 000) in total – could be a deterrent. This is why, he argues, scheduling is tantamount to the tournament’s success:

‘It has to be worth it for fans. It can’t just be one game down in South Africa. If we can go and watch two or three games, even other teams that aren’t our own necessarily, that could work.’

There is enough pull for fans with the resources and time to spare. As Stewart says, ‘Ellis Park has this aura in the minds of all rugby fans. From what I’ve seen it looks like the best rugby venue in the world and has the history of the 1995 World Cup. I’ll be desperate to get down there at some stage.’

According to the latest figures available, there are about 222 000 South Africans living in the United Kingdom and Ireland. A good few of them will be rugby fans who have not had the chance to watch their provincial teams live for some time.

‘There’s always something exciting when your team plays someone new,’ Stewart says. ‘I felt that when the Cheetahs and Kings came over. It can get dull quite quickly otherwise. Some cynics may see this as a desperate gimmick but I don’t believe that will be the case. I think it’s great and we’re encouraging our members to get behind this concept.’

This sense of the unknown is apparent when Mooney, Berni and Stewart are asked to name the players they are most excited to see from the Republic. Between the three of them they’d struggle to name a combined 15 from all four teams. This is not a veiled criticism of their rugby knowledge. How many South African fans could list a combined team from Leinster, Ospreys and Glasgow?

‘That shows how exotic it all is,’ Mooney says with excitement. ‘Southern hemisphere rugby has always carried this wonder. It is synonymous with running rugby filled with risk. I think some Leinster fans and even a few of the players will be a bit scared.

‘Look at how Ruan Pienaar came over and grabbed Ulster by the scruff of the neck. He wasn’t just a 9. He was a 10, a 15, he could do it all. That’s what we’re expecting from the South Africans. We’re hoping they’ll bring a brand of rugby we’ve never seen before.’

What can South African fans expect in some of these new territories?

Leinster: Although the Aviva Stadium is occasionally used, Leinster’s primary home is the RDS Arena in the affluent Dublin suburb of Ballsbridge. With a capacity of 18 500 it is hardly a behemoth, but 2 000 ‘seats’ are reserved for standing fans, occupied by it’s most partisan supporters. Opened in 1868, this venue was primarily used as a home for equestrian sports.

Ospreys: The Liberty Stadium is a £27-million modern stadium in Swansea that comfortably packs 21 088 fans. Ospreys shares the field with the local football club Swansea City. It was here in 2006 that Ospreys recorded a historic 24-16 win over Australia, becoming the first Welsh club to host, and then beat, an international team.

Glasgow: What the Scotstoun Stadium loses with an athletics track running round its field, it makes up with its unique name. A relatively small venue with a capacity of just under 10 000, the multipurpose venue hosted the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The Warriors’ move here in 2012 coincided with the team’s successful period in the club’s history, including a domestic title and two European Cup quarter-final appearances.

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