Cheetahs flying the flag for South Africa in PRO14 but the problem is – who cares?
Today in Port Elizabeth, the impressive Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium will host the first-ever PRO14 South African derby between the home team, Southern Kings and the Cheetahs.
Although it’s still early days for the Kings and the Cheetahs in a competition once reserved for teams from the Celtic nations (Wales, Ireland and Scotland) and Italy, the match is still a signficant event both for southern and northern hemisphere rugby.
The South African teams joined the PRO14 this season in a move that suited both the tournament and South African Rugby Union.
In terms of South Africa, the PRO14 escape route got them out of a nasty position when they were told their representation in Super Rugby would be reduced from six teams to four in 2018.
In Australia, where they had to remove just one team, the eventual axing of the Western Force took on catastrophic proportions, leading to the resignation of Bill Pulver, the CEO of Rugby Australia, and the code suffering a blow in credibility and popularity that it may never recover from.
In the Republic the blow was felt nowhere near as strongly, as it was a matter of the Kings and Cheetahs just moving to another competition, not ceasing to exist.
For the north the addition of two South African teams to an expanded PRO14 was a chance to launch into a potentially lucrative new market as well as test themselves at a provincial level against the best of the south.
Yes, the Kings and Cheetahs are hardly the Crusaders or the Hurricanes but they did finish 11th and 13th in Super Rugby’s 18-team tournament last season, so they’re not the woeful Melbourne Rebels or Japanese Sunwolves either.
So with just seven rounds remaining until the playoffs, what has been the impact of the two South African teams on the tournament and vice-versa?
The short answer – mixed, both in terms of performance and commercial return.
Both teams started poorly with the Cheetahs thrashed 42-19 by Ulster and 51-18 by Munster in the first two rounds. Similarly the Kings were beaten 57-10 by the Ospreys, 32-10 by Connacht and 31-10 by Leinster – the third game at home in Port Elizabeth.
But by the third round the Cheetahs found their feet, defeating Italy’s Zebre 54-39. Not so the Kings, who lost 43-17 to the same opponent in Round 4 and after 11 matches are still to register their first home win.
The Kings’ average match score is well into the red – 15.5 to 25.2. Compare that record to last year’s Super Rugby, where the Kings won six and lost nine with a far more respectable average match score of 26.1 to 31.33.
Sorry to burst the bubble of those who might seize on this to suggest the PRO14 is stronger than Super Rugby.
The reason for the poor results is the Kings’ playing strength has been greatly reduced in the PRO14 with many from their Super Rugby squad departing to rejoin their respec- tive Currie Cup sides in August.
They’ve been left with a grabbag assortment of players such as 35-year-old journey-man Alshaun Bock (below) on loan from Griquas.
Free State, who retained far more of their Super Rugby squad, continued to build on their Round 3 victory and have won six and lost just five matches, including impressive victories over Leinster, Ospreys, Edinburgh and Scarlets.
With back-to-back matches coming up against the hapless Kings, it’s a brave pundit who would suggest that the Cheetahs will miss the PRO14 play-offs.
Of greater concern than the results however have been the crowds for both sides, which started badly and got worse.
The Cheetahs started with a respectable 13,982 against the Zebre, which still looked sparse in their 46,000-seater stadium, but it slipped by over half the next week to 6,980 against Leinster and continued to slide – 4,589 v Ospreys, 5,964 v Glasgow to the nadir of 3,648 v Edinburgh and 3,457 v Scarlets on December 2.
The Kings’ figures make those Cheetahs numbers look bountiful: 3,011 v Leinster, 4,062 v Zebre, 3,610 v Scarlets, 3,600 v Edinburgh – and the low point 2,836 v Ulster. There is no need to point out how this looked in a state-of-the-art stadium seating over 40,000.
It’s hard to determine why the crowds have been so small for PRO14 matches in South Africa and they may pick up now there is no other live rugby to compete against until Super Rugby kicks off on February 17.
But if they don’t, serious questions will need to be asked about the sustainability of the Kings and the Cheetahs in the tournament. The escape route may not turn out to be an escape route after all.
Pride of the south: Centre William Small-Smith powers over for a try in the Cheetahs’ 28-21 victory over the Scarlets in December.
If the crowds don’t pick up, serious questions will need to be asked about the sustainability of the Kings and the Cheetahs in the PRO14