'PRO18' ... Kings would be back on thin ice

Kings v Connacht (Gallo Images)
Kings v Connacht (Gallo Images)
  • On a competitive basis, it would be hard to justify the Kings’ presence if PRO14 took on board a raft of other SA sides.
  • The Eastern Cape outfit sport an embarrassing win record of 7.27 percent in the competition.
  • Compatriots the Cheetahs, who were bidding for the knockout phase again this season, seem a much safer fit.

The whispers may take a while yet to gain in substance ... but they also just won't go away.

That SA Rugby is increasingly mulling over a much more pronounced shift toward northern-hemisphere rugby can hardly be disputed, even if the organisation understandably keeps its cards relatively close to its chest in a delicate, coronavirus-plagued climate.

I would be surprised if the country’s four traditionally premier, Super Rugby and “Test union” franchises - Sharks, Stormers, Bulls and Lions - abandoned the Sanzaar fold as swiftly as next year, as has been suggested.

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They are still quite firmly locked commercially into Super Rugby, and it is highly likely that spirited planning continues for a hopefully interruption-free competition in 2021, when a return to a leaner 14-team, round-robin-style tournament is earmarked.

It is a small step back in a potentially more popular direction for a tournament that has, undoubtedly, lost some of its charm through over-complication and foolhardy levels of expansion in recent years.

But further down the drag? The “southern” alliance is, almost indisputably, looking more fractious and tenuous than it has been before, and a more all-embracing SA switch to priorities on the other side of the equator is increasingly feasible.

A home for the quartet of SA-based Super Rugby sides in an expanded PRO14 - to likely PRO18 - is among the scenarios being weighed up.

One key snag, however, is that South Africa would be required to limit their participation to five sides, meaning an “odd one out” in such an environment from a group including the four Super Rugby teams and the already PRO14-active Cheetahs and Kings.

My first thought on the basis of logic - though that is not always something that automatically prevails in modern professional sport - would be that the Kings are likeliest to face the chop if a necessary squeeze is applied.

Jettisoned from Super Rugby, the Kings and Cheetahs made their keenly-anticipated PRO14 debuts - a competition traditionally fronted by the cream of Welsh, Irish and Scottish franchises - in the 2017/18 northern season.

A clear pattern subsequently has been for the Cheetahs to show significantly greater competitiveness; bear in mind that they are also defending domestic Currie Cup champions, whereas the Kings don’t even currently play in the top tier there.

The Bloemfontein-based outfit made the quarter-finals in their maiden PRO14 campaign, having ended third on their seven-team conference and, although they subsided to sixth in their group in 2018/19, were right back among the knockout-phase hunters - lying fourth - when the plug was pulled on play earlier this year due to Covid-19.

In total, they have won 26 of their 56 PRO14 fixtures since entry, an acceptable enough win percentage for still relative novices in the different-culture competition of 46.42%.

By contrast, however, the Eastern Cape side have floundered quite lamentably when you base it on stark stats: they are constant wooden-spoonists, a situation that was looking no brighter in the current campaign.

The Kings have played 55 games, with a humiliating record of four wins, one draw and 50 reverses - win percentage 7.27.

Still plagued by major administrative and financial upheaval (in fairness, not the only SA outfit to experience these drawbacks, albeit more severely than most), light at the end of the tunnel seems an illusion.

Only recently, a fair promise of some decent-name recruitment in the “transfer window” period from traditionally stronger domestic unions depressingly fizzled in the face of the cashflow issues in the Friendly City.

Albeit that the Kings have been a patient pet project by SA Rugby - as they seek to revitalise rugby in the region after prior robust health in the region’s various communities stretching back many decades before democracy - it would be hard to see them surviving if PRO14 expanded tomorrow to accommodate a sudden, relative flood of compatriot teams.

Their primary ally at this point is that we may be looking a little more “medium-term” than that ... but the Kings still have formidable work to do if they are to become a respectable force again.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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