Monday 16 September 2019

Tony Ward: South African expansion appeals but buoyant PRO14 must not risk getting too big too soon

Martin Anayi, Chief Executive, PRO14 Rugby. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Martin Anayi, Chief Executive, PRO14 Rugby. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The need to walk before we run needs little elaboration. It applies to almost every aspect of life and rugby is no different.

Such was the thought uppermost in my mind as 'Wales Online' unleashed a flyer over the bank holiday weekend suggesting that South Africa, and specifically its four remaining pro provinces, were set to ditch Super Rugby and follow the Cheetahs and Southern Kings into the PRO14 or whatever numeral that might then entail.

Now while it smacks of fake news it is a suggestion not without merit given the logistics for South Africa sides when travelling to New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Argentina. The need to rush the shift from PRO12 to PRO14 was essential if the Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth-based franchises were to survive as professional entities following their enforced exclusion along with the Western Force from Super Rugby.

For the Cheetahs and Kings it was a case of needs must and so minus any PRO14 prep they moved from Super Rugby alongside the domestic Currie Cup into the PRO14 as the end of the southern hemisphere season merged into that of the north.

In such circumstances the performance of the Cheetahs in making it through to the top six, despite going down heavily to the Scarlets, was a fantastic achievement.

For the Kings the challenge is much more substantial given the political background to the game in the Eastern Cape.

Bear in mind the Kings draw upon players from three provincial unions, namely the Eastern Province Kings (based in PE), the Border Bulldogs (based in East London) and the South Western Eagles (based in George).

If there is one area in which the South African Rugby Union (SARU) must direct its efforts, irrespective of what has gone before, it is the Eastern Cape and specifically the PRO14 Kings. A repeat of this season's single win is simply unacceptable.

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If SARU along with PRO14 CEO Martin Anayi are serious about possible further development of the rugby-playing link then the Southern Kings represent the true definition of a 'basket case' in need of TLC and lots of it.

But for now let us walk and leave the possibility of attracting the Sharks, the Bulls, the Lions and the Stormers, the four giants of South African rugby, for another day.

And credit where credit is due with both Italian teams, Benetton in particular, winning almost half of their conference matches.

It is time too for the Dragons and the Welsh Rugby Union to get their act together. Bernard Jackman may have his work cut out but he knows as well as any that two wins from the 21 matches played by a south-eastern Welsh region steeped in rugby is just not good enough.

I am not a fan of the conference system as I believe it demeans the value of a proper league competition.

That said I do get the need given the logistics and number of matches involved. In an ideal world 13 matches home and away would be the way to go, although the extra derby games have added to the excitement and upped interest.

Bear in mind the old Celtic League struggled to attract the relevant sponsorship on an ongoing basis but now under the Guinness tag the competition is going from strength to strength with the new Premiership Sports rights deal (eir Sport here) making for a more unified package.

Given the gloom surrounding the bully-boy tactics of the cash-rich English Premiership and Top 14 clubs in the recent past I think it is fair to say that what goes around comes around.

While the conference structure is still some way from perfect the PRO14 is more than holding its own. Indeed the last three winners of the PRO12 - Glasgow, Connacht and the Scarlets - have made it to the top playing the most riveting brand of running rugby.

Add Leinster to that mix and alongside Glasgow and Scarlets we have three squads geared to play attacking rugby in the final four of this year's competition.

Much though I would like to include Munster in that assessment it would at this point in time be delusional.

Could they get the better of Leinster in the RDS in a fortnight's time? Of course they could.

But apart from the back three of Simon Zebo, Andrew Conway and Keith Earls (who was truly outstanding again in the win over Edinburgh) the winning element is built on emotion as well of course as pure physicality.

We'll not knock that. But if Johann van Graan and Felix Jones want to prove their worth as coaches then I would again plea that creativity, specifically in midfield, be at the top of the summer agenda.

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