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Ken Borland

SA franchises off to Europe; let’s hope it lifts their games 0

Posted on October 05, 2020 by Ken

Europe, via the Pro14 – soon to be Pro16 – has now been confirmed as the new horizon for South African rugby franchises and let’s hope that the change in scenery and far easier travel demands lifts their games.

There is no doubt some truth in the assertion made by Sanzaar chief executive Andy Marinos that the regular high-intensity clashes between the players of South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and latterly Argentina, in Super Rugby, plus the top-class standard of play in the Rugby Championship, has helped create the dominance of southern hemisphere teams when it comes to the World Cup.

Super Rugby was probably the most demanding competition in world rugby and as much as fatigue was a problem for players crisscrossing the globe, it certainly toughened them up and made them more adaptable.

There has been some talk about Pro14 being an inferior tournament and if that is the case then those bolshy fans of the Stormers, Bulls, Lions and Sharks will be expecting to see their teams dominate. The Free State Cheetahs and Southern Kings might not have managed it, but there is certainly a degree of expectation out there that there should be at least a couple of South African semi-finalists every year in the Pro16.

But playing in mid-winter in Europe, it is going to be difficult to replicate the grandeur of some of the running rugby seen on display on a sunny and warm day at Loftus Versfeld or Ellis Park; the high-tempo game favoured by the last three world champion teams – the Springboks and the All Blacks in 2015 and 2011 – is going to be hard to pull off on frozen, muddy fields.

My personal opinion though is that the move to Europe will be a much-needed shot in the arm for South African rugby. I don’t expect instant dominance – it will take time to adapt to the different conditions – but a slower- more forward oriented style of play will probably suit our franchises more than trying to keep up with the New Zealand teams and their often helter-skelter running rugby.

And Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus has often pointed out that European rugby is generally closer to the style of play needed to win Test matches than the flowing, high-scoring games with limited emphasis on defence or kicking for territory we have seen in Super Rugby. So that will be good training for our players as well.

Travelling to Europe is much easier than heading to Australasia or South America, and our players won’t have to worry about jetlag, which always stacked the odds against teams on tour.

While it is highly unfortunate that the Eastern Cape, the bedrock of Black African rugby, will no longer have a professional franchise now that the Southern Kings have run out of loans, the maladministration that dates back to the days of Cheeky Watson is their own fault.

One can only feel sympathy, however, for the Cheetahs, who have also been booted out of the Pro14, having earlier been shafted from Super Rugby. As ever, economics have also decided their fate, but it is not the fault of the well-run, passionate Free State Rugby Union that they are based in one of the smaller (both in terms of population and finances) cities in the country, and their own fans have not always been the most forthcoming in filling their stadium. Which is a mystery because there’s not much else to do in Bloemfontein on a Saturday afternoon.

While negotiations are ongoing between SA Rugby and Pro 14 owners Celtic Rugby DAC, it is expected that the Pro14 will become a Pro16 with the addition of the Sharks, Stormers, Bulls and Lions, and the demise of the Cheetahs and Kings. When that would happen is anybody’s guess.

More importantly, though, it is vital that SA Rugby negotiate the eligibility of South African teams to qualify for one of the seven places the Pro14/16 offers into the European Champions Cup; the top three teams from each conference are guaranteed a place in the premier tournament that used to be called the Heineken Cup, and given the expected occupancy of those top places by at least a couple of our franchises, it is important that public interest over here is sustained by the lure of that promotion. Then our teams will really be up against the best-of-the-best.

South Africa’s decision to focus on playing in Europe has already caused some panic in New Zealand. Despite the inspirational rugby their teams continue to churn out, they are in financial strife of their own; a small country with a small population does not have a big economy and they are particularly susceptible to the devastating fiscal effects of the Covid-19 pandemic that are being felt in so many countries.

More and more of their top stars are playing in Europe, where the big bucks are, and the loss of the South African market, which brought in the majority of the broadcast monies for Sanzaar, could be the final straw that starts the gradual fall of the All Blacks.

The prospect of only playing against Australian, Pacific and Asian teams has set off the alarm bells in New Zealand. Which is only fair because they were the first to break the Sanzaar agreements on Super Rugby.

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