More ‘Platteland’ sides in PRO14? Easy, tiger!

Franco Smith (Getty Images)
Franco Smith (Getty Images)

Cape Town – To be fair, you should desist from being too doom-laden after one round of a very lengthy competition.

But let’s just say the portents aren’t exactly favourable – already -- for either of the Cheetahs or Kings to set their second seasons in the PRO14 alight.

Both of their opening matches at the weekend made for sobering, unedifying viewing … just serving as stark reminders of the ever-increasing thinning of domestic depth while professional players, regardless of levels of experience, abandon the rand in pursuit of altogether stronger currencies to the north.

How could it possibly be considered feasible, as things stand, that other “Platteland” outfits like Griquas or the Pumas enter the radar for the PRO14, as mooted in the corridors of power, somewhere in the short- to medium-term?

SA Rugby’s general council late last year effectively handed the Griquas and Mpumalanga unions “franchise-in-waiting” status as preferred candidates should new opportunities arise for involvement in inter-continental competitions.

That may sound pretty appealing, at first thought, making them potentially the seventh and eighth South African outfits playing in multinational tournaments (either Super Rugby or the PRO14) on that basis.

But it also begs some disturbing questions.

Against the backdrop of the mounting player exodus to foreign climes – a process only likely to gather pace after the next World Cup in 2019 – what earthly chance is there of these already, traditionally “second-tier” types of teams in our country mustering sufficient strength to campaign on the gruelling Euro-anchored circuit?

And what would become of their Currie Cup statuses? Would it mean that, like the highly questionable current model of the Cheetahs, we’d be “treated” to effectively their second-stringers doing duty in the already much-battered domestic competition while their premier (a word used cautiously) personnel did duty in the PRO14?

As the Cheetahs almost predictably lost on two fronts at the weekend, that popular source of wit on Twitter, @Oom_Rugby, said it was akin to “trying to make too many drinks with only a little bit of Oros”.

The PRO14 group of orange-men were especially outgunned (38-0, six tries) in Ireland … and that by a Munster side still missing several of their key national-side players – like Conor Murray and CJ Stander -- as they ease their way in from a relatively modest-length off-season.

Even in their credible maiden PRO14 campaign last year, featuring 12 wins from the 21 league games and a fleeting knockout-phase presence, the Cheetahs somehow lacked genuine individual “star” appeal.

But instead of being able to build on that showing with a settled bunch of players, the Bloemfontein-based side were instead hit by a depressing wave of departures, including Clayton Blommetjies, Francois Venter, Torsten van Jaarsveld, Carl Wenger, Paul Schoeman, Uzair Cassiem and Reniel Hugo, among others.

With respect even to those now-absent customers, they were mostly not in the same league as some of the Cheetahs personnel of their domestic heyday between 2005 and 2007 (three Currie Cup titles in a row), featuring such global heavyweight names as Naka Drotske, Jannie du Plessis, Juan Smith, Ollie le Roux, Os du Randt, Duane Vermeulen and Heinrich Brussow.

Call me a rank pessimist, but for all the “gees” they can muster, I simply cannot see the current Cheetahs outfit (now also sweating over Springbok Oupa Mohoje’s seemingly serious knee injury) matching their PRO14 showing of last season … they may not come close, in fact.

The Kings? Well, it’s a sad reflection of South African rugby in broadest terms when one of our franchises is properly drilled by an Italian club, as happened at the weekend when Zebre prevailed 34-16 with a bonus point in tow.

It somehow suggests another long, lean slog, especially with so few genuine game-breakers or household names in the Port Elizabeth arsenal.

Mind you, with a hapless record of one win in 21 last season, maybe there’s a case for suggesting nominal improvement statistically this time around, from the competition’s weakest side by some distance in 2017/18?

No, the only way I can possibly see viable new South African interest in Euro-based competition is if one or more of the existing Super Rugby “big four” from our shores abandoned their SANZAAR loyalties, lock, stock and barrel.

Griquas and the Pumas being routinely competitive against Leinster, Munster and the Scarlets? And just as importantly (in a landscape where good, atmospheric crowds DO remain the merciful norm) luring healthy gates both on their cross-equatorial travels and at home?

Try selling me another lemon.

I’d love to be shown wrong, but in their indirect way I envisage the Cheetahs and Kings, courtesy of their own likely struggles in 2018/19, effectively putting a major dampener on the idea anyway …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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