Kings and Cheetahs play for time as Pro 14 taxes them
● Time, the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings have both stressed, is what they need to establish themselves in the Pro 14 competition.
Whether time is on their side is a different matter, as they struggle in second last and last position in their respective conferences in the intercontinental competition.
Both camps are acutely aware they’ll have to improve to fully justify their existence in the demanding competition.
“We have been surprised by the quality of the teams. It is challenging,” admitted Cheetahs CE Harold Verster.
His counterpart at the Kings, Charl Crous, is in agreement. “It certainly hasn’t been disappointing. It has been a hugely challenging competition but it is one we want to be involved in.”
Though the Cheetahs made the play-offs last year, both teams have disappointed this year. Understandably, the competition’s organisers, who are receptive to the idea of further expansion, are wary of which South African teams are earmarked for entry post 2019.
SA Rugby bestowed franchise status on Griquas and the Pumas last season in the hope their new contracting model would allow the country’s player pool to be distributed more equitably by then.
Still, the Cheetahs and the Kings need improving. “Clearly there are challenges that we have to overcome,” said Verster, whose team lost more than a dozen players between their first and second season in Pro14.
“On the field, they play a different brand of rugby. Unlike Super Rugby that relies a lot on tempo, they play a power-based game in the north and contest the breakdowns more.
“Off the field, we’ve gained good experience and have learnt a few things. They play in 10,000-seater stadiums and it is always full. We play in 45,000-seater stadiums and its almost empty. We have to look at ways to reduce our capacity.
“We now have to play in our summer which is a challenge. Maybe we have to look at scheduling matches at night.”
The Kings have been with their backs to the wall from the outset. “In our first year our biggest challenge was not being able to prepare adequately,” Crous said of the South African contingent’s 11th hour inclusion in the competition. “This season we had late approvals. We couldn’t finalise our squad when we wanted to.
“Next season we are hoping to get more opportunity to prepare well for the tournament and maybe have a proper pre-season.
“On the strength of the Pro14 we were able to find a sponsor like Isuzu which provided us with a platform to do things from a commercial point of view,” said Crous.
The Cheetahs don’t nostalgically reflect on their days in Super Rugby, but Verster concedes there are days when they miss the old beast. “We do miss the derby matches. Maybe with more South African teams in the Pro14 that will change.
“There are challenges but I think it will be to South African rugby’s benefit if we have more teams in the Pro14. Look at how well Ireland have done of late.”
Crusaders fans show their support during last season’s final against the Lions.