Does PRO14 work for South African rugby?

When two South African teams moved north, it was deemed a step into the future. A year on, we ask if the experiment is working.

Looking at the involvement of the Cheetahs and Southern Kings in the Guinness PRO14, it’s difficult to work out if they’re hapless guinea pigs destined to wash out with the experiment or pioneers who’ll take an embattled South African rugby to the proverbial Promised Land in the northern hemisphere.

When the two franchises were voted off a bloated Super Rugby competition as extras not pulling their weight last year, the PRO12,  a tournament comprising Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italian clubs, happened to be looking to expand. At the same time, South Africa’s rugby governing body, SA Rugby Union (Saru), was searching for a soft landing for the Kings and the Cheetahs. Saru was also looking to explore its commercial options in the northern hemisphere, what with its returns from its long-standing partnership with Australia and New Zealand not always so courteous or prosperous.

Having paid a R120 million cover charge to join the club competition formerly known as the Celtic League, the results have been mixed. (This year they were able to offset that cost with a share of the broadcast rights revenue, an amount rumoured to be about R85 million.) In their first season (2017/18), the Cheetahs went as far as the quarterfinals, while the Kings, who lost many players after their exit from Super Rugby, predictably finished last, winning just one of their 21 games. The player-exodus was so huge that Kings coach Deon Davids said he was watching his team play for the first time in their opening match against the defending champions Scarlets.

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The average attendance figures at Cheetahs matches for the season was between 8 000 and 10 000, while the Kings came in at about 7 000. Viewership figures for the two sides’ first six games, home and away, averaged about 61 179 for the Cheetahs and 50 234 for the Kings.

A source familiar with the rocky beginnings of SA Rugby’s northern hemisphere trailblazers painted an underwhelming picture: “The PRO14 board is not impressed with our participation in the competition, there have been excuses of no time to prepare so soon after Super Rugby, but they have not been impressed.

“It’s much tougher than we thought it would be. SA Rugby is paying for the Kings’ participation (R32 million a season) and is picking up the costs of the teams coming to play here, and that runs into millions. They signed under pressure and didn’t think the consequences through. They should have waited and paid each team R30 million to get ready for participation,” the source said.

Problems in squad strength

For those at the coalface, it’s too soon to make pronouncements on the prospects of a brand new competition for the two South African teams only a season-and-a-half into the new venture. Kings chief operating officer Charl Crous feels it’s too early to evaluate the potential of the move up north. “When it comes to PRO14 it’s something very new to our audiences,” he explained. “The Currie Cup and Super Rugby are entrenched in our DNA, we know the players and we know the teams. The PRO14 is a new brand and we’re going through a process of educating our supporters about the competition and finding a unique draw card from playing in the summer and during a different time period.

“This is about a change in mind-set and it’s going to take some time for us to see people coming through the game. Also, performances will also assist us in bringing people to the stadiums, and to that end there has been a vast improvement. But the results haven’t showed in terms of our win-loss ratio, there are matches we should have won against good sides but just didn’t close out,” said Crous.

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The two teams have specific issues preventing them from being able to perform: the Cheetahs don’t have the squad depth to perform in both the PRO14 and the Currie Cup; the Kings, who are wholly owned and operated by SA Rugby because their provincial union, Eastern Province, is broke, have problems contracting players in time to be able to have a full pre-season squad.

The thinness of the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs’ squad was accentuated by their failure to win a single game in the Currie Cup this year, which forced them to maintain their Premier Division status by playing a promotion-relegation game against First Division winners SWD Eagles.

“We had 12 to 14 top [player] injuries,” said Cheetahs managing director Harold Verster. “And when you tour to the PRO14, you have to take 26 to 28 players then still try to compete in the Currie Cup. But we’re still positive about the PRO14 because we’ve just gone through the tough phase where it overlaps with the Currie Cup, which makes it difficult to perform in either competition.”

Aligning the seasons

The Kings’ troubles emanate from contrasting cycles in South African and European modules. The South African cycle runs from 1 November to 31 October, while the cycle in the northern hemisphere runs from 1 July to 30 June. This is something Crous expects to have only sorted itself out by the beginning of the next season.

According to Crous, money has also been a stumbling block for the Kings. Its short supply has curtailed their ambitions to sign Springboks, European or Japanese-based players, and top Currie Cup players. “To get the calibre of player we need to be part of this competition is really expensive, but we have to be realistic as we are currently a team wholly owned by SA Rugby. We simply don’t have the budget to compete with teams who have players playing for Ireland, Scotland and Wales at the moment,” said Crous.

The Kings’ sponsorship from Isuzu brought in R10 million of the annual R32 million needed to run their PRO14 campaign, with the consortium that declared a 74% interest in ownership still jumping through hoops held by SA Rugby. That said, the coaches and players have enjoyed the new challenge of playing in a different competition, in different conditions, against different teams and at totally different times to what they are accustomed to, the main attraction being the standard of the rugby played and a much more forgiving time difference than playing in Australia, New Zealand and Argentina.

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Asked for his first impressions on the quality of PRO14 rugby last year, Deon Davids said: “Their driving mauls are technically very good and well-organised, so is their defence and the way they compete at the breakdown. There’s also a New Zealand influence in how they play because they like to offload and keep the ball alive, and those teams who don’t like to play in their back 50 kick well – they’re very well-balanced in their approach.”

Former Cheetahs coach Rory Duncan said at the time that the travel factor had improved. “From a travel perspective, there’s been a big difference to travelling to New Zealand and Australia. You fly in overnight and you can do a flush out session later that afternoon and you don’t have to worry about who slept and who didn’t.”

Looking at the paltry attendances, both Crous and Verster agreed that the answer lies in playing at smaller stadiums (the northern hemisphere teams play in 8 000 to 10 000-seater stadiums, as opposed to South Africa’s 50 000-seater stadiums) and improving the rugby product as the game has been bleeding attendances at pretty much all professional levels. Both also said the investment will be to SA Rugby’s benefit, but only in the long term.

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