Monday 22 July 2019

This time around the South Africans are going in with eyes wide open

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, right, with South Africa's Franco Smith, left, and Johann van Graan last year at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, right, with South Africa's Franco Smith, left, and Johann van Graan last year at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Twelve months ago, they were facing into a brave new dawn without much of a clue about what they were getting into. Now, at least, the South African franchises are going into their second season of Guinness PRO14 rugby with a sense of what it is all about.

Their arrival was heralded as a brave new dawn, but within weeks the reality of the task that they'd taken on had dawned as they struggled for results and crowds.

The Cheetahs weathered the early storm and qualified for the play-offs, but the Southern Kings won just one game all season, conceding a whopping 829 points in 21 games.

Much has changed over the course of the South African winter; the Kings got a cash-boost and a major sponsor on the eve of the season getting under way, while the Cheetahs lost their coach Rory Duncan and a host of their best players to the northern hemisphere but have recruited heavily as they build a new team under Franco Smith.

The ex-Springbok assistant knows the league well having coached Treviso for a stint and believes that the tournament has improved considerably in the six years he's been elsewhere.

"When I finished in Italy the Scarlets had just finished their training facility, there was no 4G pitches to play on - the game has quickened up," Smith said.

"Scotstoun (Glasgow's stadium) was still a muddy paddock, now they score 40 points every week on it. It's a change and I think if you look at the amount of tries scored in the PRO14 you can compare it to Super Rugby. The stats show the quality of the game.

"I looked at it from an international perspective when I was with South Africa and sides like Ireland, Scotland and Wales - all the northern hemisphere sides - have improved their skill-sets enormously and play a brand of rugby that isn't conservative, that scores tries.

"It's a much better product than it was six years ago."

For Kings coach Deon Davids, the competition's profile is improving in South Africa.

"There's a great effort going on now in terms of marketing and understanding more about the different squads, the players who play for the different international teams," he said.

"We saw the interest grow as it went on, it was the first time it was played in a different season that people are normally used to so they had to adapt but you could see the crowds improve - especially in George when we played Munster. This year, as we get better, the spectators will grow as the players get to know the teams and the players."

Interestingly, Davids says there is real interest from players who see the competition as a gateway to a lucrative European move.

"There's huge interest from players to be part of it, they know we will be part of it for years to come and there is sustainability to it with investment coming into our franchise," he said. "The players see an opportunity to expose themselves to a different market and a chance to measure themselves against different players week in, week out.

Formidable

"It's a fantastic competition, coming in and playing different countries every week with different styles and approaches challenges you as a coach and in terms of your preparation."

Both teams will spend the first two weeks away from home, before they get a home game with the Cheetahs looking to build on their formidable record at the Toyota Stadium where they were almost invincible last year.

Despite the loss of a number of Springboks including captain Francois Venter, who has joined Duncan at Worcester, Smith wants them to improve on their impressive first effort.

"It's our second season in the PRO14, we have high standards and we're looking to be more and more competitive," he said.

"The new guys coming in know the standard and what is expected, we might uncover a few new guys who are developed in the PRO14 mindset.

"Previously it was all about Super Rugby, now you bring a youngster in from a different place and they have a different mindset about game management, weather conditions, the way you go about your business.

"We're getting a bit of a foothold in South African people's hearts; the quality of the players who played in the Six Nations means they're becoming household names in South Africa."

Irish Independent

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