The Cheetahs will field their strongest possible team in the Pro14 and possibly a second-string side in the Currie Cup playoffs. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Cheetahs and Kings will face a very different set of challenges in the coming months. From 1 September, the Free State side will field one side in the Pro14 and another in the Currie Cup. The Kings, meanwhile, will do well to field one competitive side in the new northern-hemisphere tournament.
CEOs, chairmen and various other dignitaries from the respective unions which comprise the Pro14 were in attendance at the launch of the tournament in Cape Town on Friday. SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux told the media that a venture into the European market was a bold step forward for South African rugby.
At the same time, Roux conceded that there would be challenges for the newcomers, the Cheetahs and the Kings, over the next two years.
Free State, the 2016 Currie Cup champions, are currently at the top of the domestic log. That may change, however, when the Cheetahs turn their attention to the Pro14 next month.
According to Roux, the Cheetahs will need to honour SA Rugby’s agreement to field their strongest possible side when competing in the European competition, even if it means putting out a second-string side in the Currie Cup playoffs.
‘There is always going to be the possibility of overlapping when you expand, and sacrifices will have to be made,’ the SA Rugby CEO said. ‘We have a commitment in terms of who we are going to play strength-wise in the Sanzaar tournaments [in Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship] and we have got the same agreement with the Pro14. We will honour that. If there is a clash, the Pro14 will take priority.’
Roux confirmed that plans are afoot to ensure that there are no clashes in the 2018 tournaments. That said, the Cheetahs players and coaches will have to overcome significant obstacles in the coming months.
‘We have six games that will overlap [across the two tournaments] this year,’ Cheetahs assistant coach Corniel van Zyl said. ‘We are also playing our first two matches away in Europe and that’s going to be tough.
‘We have a big squad and I can’t say if there will be an “A” or a “B” team. We will take it week by week. Either way, it’s going to be a big challenge, especially since we won’t get another break until November.’
Roux maintained that this is the right move forward for South African rugby, and that it could lead to changes on a grander scale.
‘We have accomplished something that even World Rugby has been trying to accomplish for a really long time,’ he said, tongue-in-cheek. ‘We’re already halfway there to a global season. So, if you give us 24 months, we might get there. Now I don’t have to fly to Dublin four times a year to have a Guinness. I can have one in my own country.
‘On a more serious note, life is about diversity and options. We are truly blessed that all of the unions and shareholders see faith in our teams. Hopefully, we will be able to contribute to that great competition, and to prepare the South African players for that autumn series in Europe that we always seem to struggle with, because we’re not used to the conditions.
‘The first two years of competing in that [Pro14] league will be tough,’ he continued. ‘We’re not blind to that. We’re going there with open eyes. But we’re glad that there’s faith in us, and that after two years we would have proved ourselves from a sustainability point of view, and more importantly, from a performance point of view.’
Roux was cagey when asked if the move to Europe would compromise an existing agreement with Sanzaar. The Super Rugby competition may be losing relevance, but the Rugby Championship is still one of the strongest tournaments in the world.
‘We’re still in an agreement with Sanzaar for the next three years. It would be a career-limiting move to make any comment about that now. I’ll give you a diplomatic answer, though. We are committed to Sanzaar until the end of 2020.
‘We are going into a negotiation period. We believe we are strong because we play Australia and New Zealand sides all the time. That relationship has been to the great benefit of SA Rugby for more than 20 years. They’re our partners. We don’t foresee not playing those teams in the future.
‘What we do have is the opportunity to expand in terms of our competitions and horizons. We’re trying to take that. We might hit out with a different structure in future. But not playing in the south in any shape or form… it’s unthinkable, because purely from a financial sustainability point of view, you will suffer.’
The Cheetahs and the Kings won’t be eligible for the European Cup or European Challenge tournaments in the near future. That may change down the line, and a change may encourage other South African teams to join the Pro14.
‘I think in future it would make a lot of sense,’ Pro14 CEO Martin Anayi said. ‘Competition and how well the South African teams do in our league will go a long way towards furthering the argument for Europe.’