The Celtic League has brought in South Africa’s Cheetahs and Kings. Things will never be the same again. This feature first appeared in the September 2017 issue of Rugby World.
HANG ON to your hats, this is going to be a bumpy ride. The Guinness Pro12 have upped their club count for next season. From September, two South African sides – freshly culled from Super Rugby – will play in Europe, as the Cheetahs of Bloemfontein and Southern Kings of Port Elizabeth swell their ranks.
There have been mixed reactions – although many, when they first hear the news, have a slightly slacker jaw. There’s a lot to consider but plenty of views, too. So here is some background on the wrangling and permutations for the future of the league…
THE BIG MOVE
Negative is certainly not a word you would use to describe Jean de Villiers. Upon finding out that the Cheetahs and Kings will play their rugby in the North from September, the ambassadorial former Springbok captain punches in with the positives.
“First off, it’s a great opportunity for the Kings and Cheetahs,” the 109-Test centre assures Rugby World. “It’s a competition that is going from strength to strength. The rise of Scotland has almost certainly contributed to that, all four Irish provinces are very strong and the Scarlets are very good after the Ospreys led the way for Welsh rugby for so long.
“There are a lot of logistics to sort out and there will be a lot of travelling. But it will be so much better for (South African) fans with games in the UK and Ireland because, from a viewership perspective, we are pretty much on the same time zone. This will introduce South African audiences to Celtic nations. In the past they saw a lot more of the Premiership and the Top 14. So there are a lot of benefits.”
Walking on the sunnier side of the street, you can see how the match-up with two South African sides would appeal.
With the two franchises – with their own stadiums, staff, players and fans, but with no league to play in from July onwards – why not see if the South African Rugby Union (SARU) would entertain some talks? According to reports, the Pro12 made around £11m last year, compared to the Top 14’s estimated €85m. In a fierce market, they have struggled next to flashier leagues in France and England. There have been calls for radical moves for a few years now. Glances have been cast abroad.
In July the Irish Rugby CEO Philip Browne said: “The one thing I’ll say about the Celtic League, and I’ve been involved since its inception in 2001, is that it’s gone through various iterations and each iteration effectively happens at five to midnight; that is the nature of this particular beast.
“Yes, there are all sorts of potential issues with going to North America, if South Africa emerged as a realistic option, but what you have to do is weigh up those potential issues with the risk of doing nothing.
“The risk of doing nothing with the Pro12 in the long term is the greater risk. We have to have a paradigm change, otherwise we’ll keep doing the same thing, getting the same result and fall further behind Top 14 and Premiership Rugby Limited.”
It is always best to deal from a position of strength, but it is the potential being sold southward by Pro12. It’s rumoured that each current member could net an additional £500k, so it’s easy to guess at reasons for acceptance. Zebre have become a cautionary tale, with months of missing wages and a failure to set pre-season plans in place. There is discord in parts of Italy, and Treviso and Zebre only have guarantees of continued participation to 2018.
“The Italians might take it as a threat but I see it as a wake-up call,” says former Azzurri prop Massimo Cuttitta, now coaching Romania’s scrum. “They might wake up and start delivering good things on the pitch. This is more competition, of a high level.
“It is important to have two teams in Italy or we will fall down. The union have been cruising for too long and they take everything for granted. For me, this is a positive. I’m not sure what other Italians think but they have played around too long.”
You may just imagine a sword hanging over Italy. There is certainly something for the South Africans to grasp hold of, with interests in two hemispheres.
“We will still have four teams in Super Rugby,” de Villiers reiterates. “This does give SARU an opportunity to allow players to play abroad while still being in South Africa. A big problem for us is the player drain. So this means some will get the experience while still plying their trade here. Hopefully this means we keep more players in South Africa. Money is usually the problem.
“I’m excited. Hopefully it will be good for players. With the hemispheres, you playing up there, us playing down here, there was a gap, internationally. I think the inter-hemisphere playing field is more even now and I think that is a strength for rugby.”
South African network SuperSport is usually all over SARU’s negotiations, but Rugby World understands that as initial deals were being signed on this move, they knew little. Some rumours of big splurges flew out, with suggestions that the network could double the Pro12’s television revenue. Given the appetite for televised rugby in South Africa – and the fact SuperSport have share holdings in the Cheetahs franchise – an increase in TV money for the league was always likely.
Money, as de Villiers has said, is a powerful motivator. Money comes in new markets too. Talks have been going on, elsewhere, for some time.
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Far away Vancouver and Houston have regularly been suggested as North American destinations for new franchises for the league. When approached for clarification of their own position, Rugby Canada CEO Allen Vansen replied with this statement: “Rugby Canada believes there is a strong market for professional rugby in Canada and North America. We have held a number of discussions with existing professional leagues, including Guinness Pro12, over the past year.
“The opportunity to expand the professional sport landscape in North America with professional rugby is both an exciting prospect and one that we firmly believe is critical to our men’s national team’s future successes on the international stage.
“As with all ventures of this nature, the timing, structure and location of a franchise are critical elements to get right and to ensure a sustainable and successful product. Both the Vancouver and Toronto markets provide a passionate existing fan base for a potential professional franchise to build upon.
“Rugby Canada is eager and excited to work with a future franchise ownership group and professional rugby league to realise this exciting opportunity!”
When approached for similar clarification of their city’s stance, the Harris County Houston Sports Authority did not respond in time for publication.
Nevertheless, while these moves will excite some, others are shouting for caution. The recent bungling of the Super Rugby format has panicked a few, who warn the Guinness league not to make the same mistakes as those who reached too far in the South.
When it became clear that two South African sides would fall out of Super Rugby, Jurie Roux, the SARU boss who has been at the negotiating table with the Pro12, said: “We have reached this painful point partly because of over-optimism and partly because we have not always taken a hard-nosed business view of what is good for rugby.”
Super Rugby is still dealing with the mess they created – their body, SANZAAR, saw money-making potential and the bright lights of distant markets, but look at how bleak the future could be for Australia, while the South Africans hop north. The Wallaby flanker Scott Fardy – off to Leinster now –has talked about his anger with the “faceless men in suits in board rooms” in reference to the long periods of uncertainty while the ARU struggled to decide which one of the Rebels and Force franchises they should axe from Super Rugby. But he also captured the mood of a whole rugby planet when he said: “I hope we get change so we’re not having these same conversations in five or ten years’ time.”
Of course, with one South African rugby insider telling Rugby World that many in the nation see Super Rugby as a “dog” and that their remaining franchises could look to Europe when contracts are up in 2020, why travel to North America at all?
This feature first appeared in the September 2017 issue of Rugby World