Chee­tahs fly­ing the flag for South Africa in PRO14 but the prob­lem is – who cares?

Sport360 - - News - Rugby with Alex Broun @alexan­der­broun alexbroun@sport360.com

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

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