Mass SA shift toward PRO14? Why I'm lukewarm

Sharks v Stormers (Gallo Images)
Sharks v Stormers (Gallo Images)

The lengthy dormancy of Super Rugby this year, caused by the Covid-19 crisis, has only increased the ripples over South Africa's future in the competition - at a time when it is increasingly struggling for the credibility of old anyway.

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Whispers are getting louder (although they've been around for a while, remember) that SA Rugby is keen to move en masse from the southern-hemisphere franchise tournament pretty soon, with the PRO14 in the "north" seen as a viable home for all our major sides.

Naturally there will be travel, time-zone and some financially-related plusses to such a shift: you have to wonder, too, just how sustainable an all-Australasian Super Rugby would be, minus the obvious South African clout driven by the chunk of the broadcasting pie.

But is it really the right way to go, if our four current, biggest franchises follow the route pioneered not too long ago by the Cheetahs and Kings, toward Europe?

South Africa has been a staple presence in Super Rugby since 1993 and the earliest, still largely amateur days of "Super 10", and the one thing you could always boast about the event was that it indisputably pitted the best of the best in the southern hemisphere against each other ... and generally in dry, firm-pitch conditions favourable to flowing rugby.

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While the swelling migration of best SA players (Australia is steadily feeling the pinch on that front, too) to lucrative deals on the other side of the equator has had a debilitating impact, I am still convinced in my own mind that Super Rugby's declining lustre has been primarily down to the obscenely regular tinkering - and foolhardy expansions at times in teams taking part - to the structure by Sanzaar.

As I wrote on Sport24 fairly recently, a return to a notably, committedly more slimline Super Rugby - while still including teams from all three juggernaut southern powers - could have a significant revitalising effect.

The considerable snag with PRO14, as I see it, is that it is in many ways only "the best of the rest" in a UK/European context, given that English clubs continue to campaign in the almost certainly still more blue-chip, England-specific Premiership.

Traditionally, remember, England have won the Six Nations title (since its establishment in that format in 2000) more times than anyone else, were the runners-up to the Springboks at the last World Cup in 2019, and are still the only team from the north to have ever hoisted the Webb Ellis Cup, in 2003.

There are some extremely prestigious Irish and Welsh clubs and players, for example, active in the PRO14; don't get me wrong on that.

But without the cream of English (and French) teams, PRO14 is just another tournament, if you like, which can't ever be described as the premier barometer - unlike Super Rugby in the south - of northern-hemisphere bragging rights.

That's my major marketing concern (the Cheetahs and particularly Kings haven't exactly set it alight to this point, either) in the event that the Sharks, Stormers, Bulls and Lions also trek in a completely different direction ...

*Rob Houwing is Sport24's chief writer. Follow him on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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