It all happened rather quickly in the end. It was confirmed last week that the old Pro 12, the rugby union league comprising teams from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy, would be expanded to 14. Nothing too outlandish in that, however, something a little bit different is that the two expansion teams come from a little further afield than the old strongholds. Welcome then to the Toyota Cheetahs and Southern Kings of South Africa.
It has been known for months that the Super Rugby competition in the southern hemisphere was going to lose three teams. SANZAAR (the body operating Super Rugby) decided that two of the South African teams would be cut, along with one from Australia. The decision as to which teams would go was left up to the relevant unions. The choice in Australia has been getting messier and messier over recent times, with the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels fighting tooth and claw to remain in the competition.
The South African equivalent was relatively clean in comparison, with the announcement last month that the Cheetahs and Kings would both lose their Super Rugby status. It was already clear that the apparently magnanimous reaction by the two teams was tempered by the possibility of joining another competition. The suggestion of joining the Pro 12 had been around for a number of months and it was common knowledge that the Pro 12 wished to expand to new markets. So it was maybe one of the more poorly kept secrets of recent times that a European league could be about to have a sprinkling of Springbok added to the mix.
The possible surprise for some may be the speed with which this has come together. The Cheetahs and Kings will join the newly branded Pro 14 (as distinct from the Top 14 in France) from this season, kicking off just a matter of weeks after the announcement. Rather than simply joining the standard league (play everyone home and away) format that had been in place, the Pro 14 takes on a slightly Super Rugby flavour by dividing into 2 conferences.
Then the complications begin. The conferences will have an even split of teams from each country – 2 Irish, 2 Welsh, 1 Scottish, 1 Italian and 1 South African team in each conference. Each team will play their fellow conference teams both home and away in a season, whereas they will only play the teams in the other conference once, either home or away. However, the league organisers know how important the local derbies are, some of which would have fallen by the wayside under this new format. Diluting old tribal rivalries would have hit revenues. So teams will complete the set by playing home and away derbies against their local rivals in the other conference.
Still following?! I can recommend drawing a diagram…
Leaving aside these complications, there is also the question of qualification for the Champions Cup, the premier European rugby union competition. Put simply, no matter what the South African teams do, they will not qualify for either the Champions Cup or the second tier Challenge Cup. The top 3 non-SA teams from each conference go into the Champions Cup, along with the next best placed non-SA team across either conference, with the rest (except for the Cheetahs and Kings) going into the Challenge Cup.
Fine, but what do the South African teams do during the European competition weekends? At the moment, it seems, nothing. Therefore, the two South African teams will have at least six fewer competitive matches per year than the other Pro 14 sides. Given the attrition rate for players in modern rugby union and the intensity that many of the European matches are played at, is this fair? If playing more such matches, is there more of a chance that one of the star players goes down injured, potentially seriously affecting a season? Will the European teams suffer more from fatigue and mental burnout when coming back to the league after a hard European cup fortnight, whereas South African players have had their feet up (relatively speaking, I am sure they would be training!)? One could consider a comparison between rugby and football on these points, but that would result in more of a thesis than a blog.
Further, if the Champions Cup is meant to be the best European teams competing against each other, the South African sides are clearly not European and so miss out. However, if the Cheetahs and the Kings start to tear up the Pro 14, each topping their conference and ending up in the final against one another, the Champions Cup would not be accurately reflecting the strength of the leagues it represents. The cream of the crop from the English and French leagues up against a group from the Pro 14 who may or may not be the best in their league, as it depends where they are from. Does this work?
My final thought concerns the players themselves. Players in the old Pro 12 travelled between Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy. Not huge distances, particularly for international or ex-Super Rugby players who are used to much more. However, in the blink of an eye, without any real say, the players in the league now have at least one far longer trip to South Africa for a regular season game. While there are no significant time zone issues to worry about (which Super Rugby teams have dealt with for years), a wet and drizzly evening in Limerick in November is going to be rather different to a steamy summer’s afternoon in Bloemfontein (also in November). What will this require of the players and coaches? Different playing styles, strategy, preparation for a single week? Will such a shock to the system affect European players to the extent that they end up at a disadvantage for those games? What about the South African players braving the wild, wintry nights of Limerick or Galway? Does unfamiliarity leave them at a disadvantage?
These questions are only a handful that may arise out of this new expanded league. At the end of the day, the base aim of the league organisers is to increase revenue for the league. Against the financial might of the English and French leagues, that makes a lot of sense. Also, as an avid fan of one of the Pro 12/Pro 14 sides (I am not sure my professional obligations allow me to pin my colours to the mast specifically…), I like the idea of trying to justify a trip to Port Elizabeth to see our boys play rather than the slightly easier trip to Glasgow or Galway. I wonder what the players think?
Fingers crossed then for the Pro 14. Two South African sides with an uncertain future have been given a competition to play in and the competition itself has been given a new market to potentially tap into. Sounds like a win-win. Let’s reconvene at the end of the season and see how it all played out.