Wednesday 15 August 2018

Tony Ward: South African sides will come good – the Italians are the issue

PRO14 expansion has plenty of positives - and struggling Southern Kings can get house in order

The talented Francois Venter can make his mark in the Pro14 with the Cheetahs. Photo: Sportsfile
The talented Francois Venter can make his mark in the Pro14 with the Cheetahs. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Even before officialdom deemed the game open in 1995, the Southern Hemisphere was ahead of the posse. The Super 10 incorporating teams from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Tonga and Western Samoa was launched in 1993 and lasted three seasons up until 1995, when professionalism kicked in.

It was the predecessor to Super 12 Rugby, then Super 14, increasing to 16, and on to 18 before the collective cry of halt went up and Super Rugby scaled back to 15 teams from five countries (Argentina and Japan the newest arrivals) competing in three conferences of five.

So with the Western Force (Western Australia), the Southern Kings (Eastern Transvaal) and the Cheetahs (Orange Free State) biting the Super Rugby dust, Celtic Rugby (Pro12) sensed an opportunity, and it acted fast ahead of the dismantlement of the two South African sides.

I don't like the concept of separate conferences, sharing cross-fixtures. Give me a straightforward league culminating in simple play-offs any time.

Granted, it is new to the northern hemisphere, but I find the conference structure confusing and feel it can also diminish intensity.

It was not until the 2001-02 season that the Celtic cousins came together for a three-nation competition.

Initially, there were 15 teams with the four Irish provinces (our system fitted most snugly of all into the professional demands), two Scottish districts (Glasgow and the then Edinburgh Reivers), with all nine Welsh Premier teams at least attempting the transition to professionalism - Bridgend, Caerphilly, Cardiff, Ebbw Vale, Llanelli, Neath, Newport, Pontypridd and Swansea.

In 2003, the Welsh restructured their system, switching from clubs to regions, with Cardiff (Blues) and Llanelli (Scarlets) still in place but Ospreys representing Neath/Swansea and the Dragons Newport/Gwent/Pontypridd. It has been a huge transition for Welsh rugby, and although there are still some battles to be won, credit the WRU for their vision.

A third Scottish side, the Borders, came on board from 2002-07.

Then, in 2010, came another significant change with the addition of two Italian sides, Treviso and Aironi (since replaced by Zebre) to what was now to be rebranded the Pro12.

So it remained until the Super Rugby demotions opened the door for the Cheetahs and Southern Kings to join a northern hemisphere competition.

It was, by necessity, a rushed job. For both sides, it was a case of sink or swim.

Not all rugby supporters welcomed the South African sides and questions are still being asked about what they have brought to the Pro14 table. I have mixed feelings but, on balance, support the initiative.

For starters, it is much too early to pass any sort of definitive judgement.

Over the Pro14 summer break, both sides have a chance to put in place the organisation and pre-season preparation so essential and so clearly lacking last year, when they two teams were hurriedly invited into the PRO14.

I take far greater issue with the Italian involvement. Based on performance, neither Treviso nor Zebre deserve continued inclusion.

In fairness to current coach Kieran Crowley, Treviso - rechristened Benetton - are having their best season yet with a 50pc win ratio. That said, they still stand fifth in Conference B, while Zebre are bottom of Conference A.

By contrast, the Cheetah - spearheaded by the talented Francois Venter - are third in Conference A and could still qualify for the play-offs at the first time of asking, despite all the organisational mayhem back in September. It is clear that Orange Free State remains a hotbed of South African rugby.

In contrast, Eastern Transvaal rugby has long been undermined by internal strife and politicking. The Port Elizabeth-based Southern Kings have lost 17 of their 18 games; they desperately need to get their house in order on and off the pitch.

If they can do that, the South African initiative may yet be deemed a success. The two-match trip to the Rainbow Republic makes for a welcome change in working environment for the other 12 participants. It's an opportunity for players who might not otherwise get the chance to play in South Africa.

And South Africa is easily accessible with the overnight flight and one-hour time difference.

For Munster, in terms of fine-tuning the link between their Grand Slammers and the rest, this dual South African fixture now between Champions Cup quarter-final and semi, could hardly have been better timed.

I still wish the Italians would come good, but the South Africans? I know they will.

Irish Independent

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