Cheetahs, Kings in mad rush to be Pro 14 ready

BUSY Harold Verster, managing director of Free State Cheetahs. Picture: Charl Devenish
BUSY Harold Verster, managing director of Free State Cheetahs. Picture: Charl Devenish

Johannesburg - Free State Cheetahs managing director Harold Verster has never had it this busy – or good.

As one of the two South African teams, the Southern Kings being the other, preparing for their maiden season in the Pro 14 after their axing from Super Rugby, the logistics of juggling the new competition and the Currie Cup led to some out-of-the-box thinking.

With the Currie Cup running until the end of October and the Pro 14 starting on September 1, the overlap before the beginning of November means Verster and company are wrestling with split coaching teams, split squads and travel plans to such far-flung places as Kimberley and Ulster.

But one gets the impression Verster wouldn’t have it any other way:

“It’s a huge challenge but it’s exciting, too. In two weeks we play in our first Pro 14 game [against Ulster on September 1] and over the same days we’re playing against Western Province and the Sharks.

“We can’t complain because we’ve got something special going on here.”

The Cheetahs’ next five fixtures read: Lions on August 26 (Bloemfontein); Ulster on September 1 (Ireland); Sharks on September 2 (Durban); Western Province on September 9 (Cape Town); and Munster in Ireland later on the same day.

Verster says the planning for that is that former Cheetahs captain Rory Duncan, who has traded his suit for his tracksuit to coach again, will take the team to Ireland while former Springbok prop and forwards coach Daan Human will be caretaker coach at Currie Cup level.

Thanks to SA Rugby’s “financial parachute” to help the Cheetahs and the Kings settle in for their first season in the Pro 14, Verster said they had managed to recruit coaches and increase their squad to 55 players, two of whom (Sergeal Petersen and Raymond Rhule) will move on to WP next season.

The big issue at the moment, he said, was the fact that injury has run right through their flyhalf stocks: “Neil Marais has just had a shoulder operation, Fred Zeilinga’s just had one on his hip, Clinton Swart’s injured his knee and (scrumhalf) Tian Meyer, who also plays flyhalf, has had a shoulder op.

“That means we’re just left with Ryno Eksteen, who played his first game after injury in a long time last week. We’re also thinking of using [Springbok Sevens player and fullback] Cecil Afrika at flyhalf.”

Verster said things would look a bit better once the Currie Cup finished and the overlapping between competitions stopped.

“From November 1 until May there’ll be no overlapping.

"By January our Boks and injured players will be back. We should be a lot stronger then, but we must hang in there for now.”

Being kicked out of Super Rugby has come with a surprising windfall for the Cheetahs:

“We get extra TV rights income because of Pro 14 and we’ve signed a new South Africa- and Europe-based sponsor, who wants exposure in the UK, and we’re hoping to sign one or two more.”

With said new sponsor rumoured to be paying in pounds sterling, being kicked out of Super Rugby is proving to be good business.

The Kings’ issues are a bit more complex in that they lost the core of their players, who included Ross Geldenhuys, Irné Herbst, Tyler Paul, Thembelani Bholi, captain Lionel Cronjé, Louis Schreuder and Makazole Mapimpi, to mention a few.

While they managed to announce the retention of their miracle worker coach Deon Davids (his assistant Vuyo Zangqa has moved on to Germany, of all places), they have had to scramble to put together a squad.

The personnel coming in, which was 23 at the last count, are a combination of players with no contracts or loanees.

They are also said to be on the verge of announcing former Stormers, Griquas and Border wing Chumani Booi, currently assistant coach with the Bulldogs, as Davids’ assistant coach

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