The Toyota Cheetahs and The Southern Kings join clubs from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales to create the Pro14. Adding some Southern Hemisphere flair to the competition should open the game up to new fans.
When you think of rugby tournaments, your mind jumps to World Cups, Six Nations, and The Rugby Championship (formerly Tri-Nations). If you step down to club level, it’s all about the European Champions Cup (formerly Heineken Cup), the Aviva Premiership and Super Rugby.
Interest has been lost in France’s Top 14 despite their financial backing, and the other European nations’ Pro12 has stagnated, with traditional Irish heavyweights Leinster and Munster falling away. However, there is a new chance for European club rugby to be put back on the map. The new European Rugby competitions have been effective, but we need something new. But fear not, the Springboks are coming.
After being exiled from Super Rugby as the completion is trimmed to 18 sides (six per conference), South African sides, The Toyota Cheetahs and The Southern Kings, are joining the Pro12, with the competition now called the Pro14. The Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth based sides will now face the lengthy trips to Europe, but will also welcome their Irish, Italian, Scottish and Welsh counterparts south of the equator.
The Pro14 will borrow the conference structure used in Super Rugby. Instead of each country representing a conference, there will be two Irish and Welsh sides, with one from Italy, Scotland and South Africa. Therefore the amount of travel is spread around.
Those Welsh and Irish sides will maintain their six derby fixtures with two additional rounds, whilst the remainder will play one another three times. The South Africans will only play on Saturdays, and will be given five travel-free days prior to matches, and they will be unable to qualify for European competition.
The proof will be in the pudding
“They’ve had really flamboyant players in the past, and the current crop of players they’ve got play an exciting form of rugby. They’re young, hungry, ambitious guys and they will bring that Southern Hemisphere panache to the tournament.”
— Martin Anayi, CEO of the Guinness Pro14
This is what everyone wants, if the two new South African sides can rub off on their European counterparts, we could be in for something special. The imports in the Top14 and around the rest of Europe over the past five years have only recently started to rub off in on the home-grown player, but the Cheetahs and Southern Kings could accelerate the process.
South African rugby may not be in the richest health at the moment, after a disappointing Autumn International series in 2016, featuring a loss to Italy, but a 3-0 series win over the French has them on the up once more. The Kings and Cheetahs were far from the best teams in Super Rugby last season, finishing 5th and 6th in the South African group. That is below the Argentinean side Jaguares but above native side The Bulls and the Japanese Sunwolves.
A disappointing Super Rugby season as well as a lack of front line internationals was the fuel to drop them from the Southern Hemisphere competition, but a move into Europe may just be the perfect tonic for them. The Kings have just one South African international in their ranks, centre Waylon Murray, whilst the Cheetahs have four.
Getting away from a fiercely competitive Super Rugby may work wonders, and don’t be surprised if the pair become incredibly popular for emerging Springboks, or possibly even experienced players. It may be as a perfect route to European rugby whilst remaining in their homeland.
We must remember that neither the Cheetahs or the Southern Kings are the Stormers or The Lions, and are unlikely to challenge for the Pro14 title next year. However, if they can bring the traditional Southern Hemisphere flair to European shores, the Pro14 powers that be will be grinning from ear to ear.
Fans will want to see that power up front, backed up by brilliance and off-the-cuff magic out wide. It may take some time, but don’t be surprised if the Pro14 becomes the most exciting league on the planet, catering for the rugby traditionalists and the modern fireworks.