Saturday 24 February 2018

Comment: South African PRO 14 experiment a slow burner - people must be patient

PRO14 must be patient with new arrivals who are fighting an uphill battle in their first season playing in the Northern Hemisphere

Cheetahs’ Reniel Hugo wins possession in the lineout against Ulster last weekend. Photo: Sportsfile
Cheetahs’ Reniel Hugo wins possession in the lineout against Ulster last weekend. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The schedulers could have been kinder to the Guinness PRO14's newest faces but the Southern Kings and the Cheetahs have gone straight in at the deep end.

A cushy trip to Italy might have helped the two provinces acclimatise, but instead they will have visited Belfast, Limerick, Galway and Llanelli before returning home for a breather. The scale of their challenge was laid bare last weekend when they both suffered heavy defeats despite showing encouraging signs.

Brian O’Driscoll believes it may take time for the two South African sides to rise to the challenge of the PRO14. Photo: Sportsfile
Brian O’Driscoll believes it may take time for the two South African sides to rise to the challenge of the PRO14. Photo: Sportsfile

Anyone expecting the South Africans to hit the ground running hasn't been paying attention. The Cheetahs are fighting on two fronts, with the Currie Cup - the domestic show-piece tournament - proceeding alongside the PRO14, while the threats to their very existence meant that the Kings lost a slew of front-liners at the end of the Super Rugby campaign.

Their players have been on the go since their season began in January, their preparations are limited by the very fact they only found out they'd be playing in Wales and Ireland a short time ago having initially feared for their clubs' futures and they are experiencing a new environment for the first time.

Upturn

Inevitably, it will take time for them to adapt. Their commitment to the tournament is a long-term one and while there may be an upturn in their fortunes when they return to home soil and after Christmas when they can strengthen their rosters with Springbok talent; it may be next season before we can see the best of them.

It said much about the situation that the two players who did the most damage against the Cheetahs last weekend were Ulster's twin Springbok wrecking balls Jean Deysel and Marcell Coetzee.

More than 300 South Africans play professional rugby outside their home country and across the championship, the best South African-reared players are operating with the Northern Hemisphere teams whether it's Jaco Taute, CJ Stander and Jean Kleyn at Munster, Oli Kebble at Glasgow or the likes of WP Nel and Cornell du Preez at Edinburgh.

There are talented players in the two newcomers' squads, but they have been hastily assembled and will need time to gel.

They should be stronger on home soil when Leinster and Zebre are the first to embark on two week mini-tours to the Southern Hemisphere.

Ireland legend Brian O'Driscoll believes the decision to include the Kings and the Cheetahs will come off in time.

"I think we need to be patient too with the South African teams," he said. "You're going to see a very different animal playing in South Africa than you are up here while they adapt to the conditions and the way that we play the game, it is quite different.

"It will be next year before we can properly judge them, but you can be sure that we'll be seeing their brand and learning an awful lot when we go down and play them in South Africa. They will be uncompromising as all South African teams are.

"You'll see very mixed results home and away. The great thing about it is that they were able to get it done so quickly for this season and we weren't waiting all season for them to join. The competition needed freshening up of some sort."

O'Driscoll believes the trips to Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth will be of great benefit to young Irish players in particular.

"I only managed to play in South African twice in my career - once for Ireland, which was very little considering how often we toured the likes of New Zealand, and then once for the Lions," he recalled.

"The opportunity for players to go down, particularly those who haven't played international rugby, to go down and get experience playing on the Highveld in Bloemfontein, to understand the difficulties of playing in South Africa with a partisan crowd...

"They're an interesting crowd in Bloemfontein, there was a lot of throat slitting gestures when we were there in 2004 from the fans, so they're passionate about their rugby."

How that passion will translate into crowds and interest remains to be seen and the attendance for and interest in Leinster's double header will be closely watched.

Of course, winning teams would greatly contribute to building that interest once the initial curiosity subsides.

Lucrative

For those running South African rugby, this is an opportunity to dip their toe in the water of the Northern Hemisphere game and it could prove lucrative. Already, there are murmurs about the next step of the Kings or the Cheetahs gaining entry into the Champions Cup, while the PRO14 is also looking at expansion into new territories.

South Africa, with it's rugby heritage and huge strength in depth, is a good first start but it may be another year before the entertainers become contenders.

"I'd say they're very excited about the opportunity and I think we should be too," Munster's Kleyn said this week.

"From a viewership perspective, I'd say it would be very interesting to watch them. So I'd say, have a look at the backs, especially the back three, some really lightning fast, not massive guys, but they're quick. It's going to be a good show."

That's not a bad start, but the more substantive stuff is likely to be coming down the track when the South Africans get settled in.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport