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An apt name for new competition

In terms of what it can teach South African rugby, the competition that the Southern Kings and Cheetahs have joined in the country’s first foray into the northern hemisphere could not have a name that is more apt.

A common observation among people who I have spoken to who watched the PRO14 games last weekend was how professional it was. Both the South African teams showed signs of promise and in time they should contribute positively to the competition.

Just as the Cheetahs and the Kings will adjust to northern hemisphere realities, and that could mean an improvement in aspects related to forward play and, when the cold bite of winter hits, game management, so the Celtic and European teams should benefit from playing against teams from the south.

It was interesting, for instance, to hear former Crusaders wing/fullback Johnny McNichol, who was the star of the Scarlets win over the Kings, comment that the match was played at Super Rugby tempo. He clearly felt that to some extent he and his teammates had been taken out of their comfort zone. The message was that the game brought something different to the usual fare enjoyed by the fans over there, and that is a good thing.

McNichol being the man of the match in the Llanelli match highlighted what I consider the aspect of professionalism that could have the most impact on the Kings and Cheetahs going forward in the competition and their chances of being able to ever challenge for silverware.

Half the Ulster pack that got the better of the Cheetahs was South African. Louis Ludik, the former Sharks player now qualified to play for Ireland, was the best Ulster back in the Belfast match. Jean Deysel, playing his debut game after moving from Durban earlier this year, was the man of the match.

Rugby in the UK, France and Ireland is fully professional in the sense that the economic imperative is the bottom line. The clubs over there make sure they secure the services of the best available players that they can afford, and it doesn’t matter where those players come from. All that matters is that they boost the club’s chance of being successful.

Of course apart from the reality that it is money that makes the world go around, and the Kings and Cheetahs will have to ensure they become rich enough to compete on the transfer market, there is a different imperative at work in South African rugby. Even if they could afford it, I cannot imagine local teams finding space for several foreigners in the team.

In the Cape there was a bit of an outcry earlier this year when Stormers coach Robbie Fleck tried to plug a gap caused by injuries in his midfield by offering a short-term contract to New Zealander Shaun Treeby. A few years ago a Western Province administrator asked my opinion when a feeler had been put out by Sonny Bill Williams to possibly spend a season with the Stormers. In the UK you wouldn’t get questions like that being asked.

Unless the attitude changes, and obviously it is going to require an economic windfall for it to be possible to contract overseas players, the Cheetahs and Kings will always be at a disadvantage. They will find themselves playing against teams with South Africans in them whereas it is not likely that the Welsh, Scots and Irish will find themselves up against their countrymen dressed in Kings or Cheetahs clothing.

The positive though is that the two South African teams will find themselves exposed to the realities of professionalism in the northern hemisphere. That will mean there is a better chance of them being nudged in that direction that would be the case if the local outlook was just confined to Super Rugby, where foreigners such as Frederik Michalak have been a rarity.

It’s going to be interesting to see how the coaches and administrators from the two franchises react to the challenges, for you’d imagine that their appearance in PRO14 will also make the South African team more vulnerable to losing their best players to overseas clubs.

So while there are a lot of positives about the South African participation in PRO14, and it was refreshing watching a new competition and being exposed to a different culture and vibe, there are big challenges to be faced in terms of attitude adjustment and being able to compete financially with the overseas clubs.

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