First there was 12 and now there are 14. The addition of the 2 South African teams has been part of Pro Rugby chatter for some time, but the speed of their entry to the league has taken a lot of us by surprise.
If the coming together of the South African teams and the old Pro12 is a marriage, it is an arranged one – formed out of necessity rather than love or a great affection for each other. The Kings and Cheetahs have been kicked out of their current relationship and the Pro12 had a house available for them to move in to, with the promise of a bit of rent payable to ease the burden.
We are where we are, but the expanded league, along with the splitting of the 14 teams in to 2 conferences is a fundamental change which shouldn’t be understated. It has brought a number of challenges to the future success of the tournament which we have listed below:
(1) Rugby thrives on local, tribal battles
The most popular fixtures for supporters are usually those against close neighbours or teams with which there is historical context. Think Munster and Leinster or the Scarlets and Ospreys.
The South African teams are neither close in geographical terms nor is there any historical rivalry between these teams and the legacy Pro12 constituents. Would the average rugby fan in the northern hemisphere even know where the two SA teams are based or be able to name any players?
This lack of affiliation with the new entrants could be a problem when it comes to marketing and selling the games.
Splitting the 14 teams in to two conferences is a horrible arrangement that brings with it a number of complexities and issues. The first is that no longer will rival teams be able to compare their league positions as the season evolves, because they will often be in different conferences.
Splitting the two Scottish teams for example, means that no longer will Edinburgh supporters be able to compare their league position relative to their close rivals in Glasgow. The Ospreys and Scarlets are also in different pools, so supporters won’t be able to cast a glance at the league table and see where the other team is placed.
(3) Inherent inequalities
The conference arrangement introduces a number of intrinsic inequalities in to the league that threaten the integrity of the tournament. We will look at these in a bit more detail in another blog but let’s just take 1 example for this article – the relative strengths of each conference.
The teams have been chosen based on previous year’s performances but a quick glance at the conferences and one division looks stronger than the other. We may find during the season that perhaps 1 or 2 teams may under perform against their seeding which could impact the strength of that conference.
When all teams in a league play each other home and away each season the playing field is levelled out, but by splitting the teams in to conferences there will always be the perception (or perhaps reality) that one league is stronger than the other.
(4) Player welfare and the long season
Pity the Kings and Cheetahs. The Super Rugby season started back in the middle of February and the final league games were on the 14th July (the Kings played the Cheetahs in their final game).
Just 7 weeks later and both teams are now in the Pro14 and about to kick off another full season.
There is a lot of talk in rugby about player welfare and looking after those that play the game at the highest level but how are these messages consistent with asking the Kings and Cheetahs players to play rugby for nearly 13 months over a 15 month time period?
(5) The strength of the Kings and Cheetahs teams
One of the big unknowns is how the Kings and Cheetahs will perform on the pitch. They are not the strongest SA teams and with a long season already played this year and a great deal of travel there is a risk they will not be able to compete with the top teams in the Pro14.
Both teams have had a number of squad changes since the end of the Super Rugby season and with the South Africa Rugby Union looking to concentrate their resources in a smaller number of teams in Super Rugby, will the Pro14 teams be seen as second class citizens when it comes to player strength?
(6) The lack of a global rugby calendar
Rugby in the northern and southern hemispheres is played at different times of the year, making the addition of the South African teams a logistical nightmare.
How will rugby in South Africa be organised when 2 of the main teams are playing on a completely different calendar to the other Super Rugby teams? South Africa are currently playing in the Rugby Championship, so players will be pulled out for national team duty while the South African teams will be at full strength when the teams in the north will be depleted by their test windows being open.
How will the Currie Cup be affected by the 2 SA teams playing in the Pro14? The Cheetah’s Currie Cup team has 6 matches that overlap with the Pro14 commitments so how will they put out 2 teams thousands of miles apart at the same time? Either the Currie Cup will be devalued or the Pro14 team denuded of their best players.
Longer term, it looks completely impractical for a large percentage of South Africa’s players to be playing on a different calendar than the others and in particular the nation’s representative teams.
(7) Travel distances and costs
Yes, South Africa is pretty much on the same time zone as the other nations in the Pro14 but it is the length of travel that is often draining and physically demanding, particularly when this involves overnight flights.
The Pro14 organisers have tried to alleviate the travel costs for individual teams by paying these from a central budget but this is still a substantial amount. Last year the Scarlets travelled back from their away fixture in Glasgow by bus but this year they are flying to South Africa!
The Cheetahs are based in Bloemfontein and the Kings in Port Elizabeth; neither of which has direct flights to the UK, Ireland or Italy. The trips to South Africa (and to Europe coming the other way), will be physically demanding, with the South African teams spending a long time living in suitcases away from home.
(8) The Europe question
We know that the South African teams can’t gain entry to European competition next season but the odds are that a route for their inclusion will be opened up in the future.
Will more places be made available in European competition for the expanded Pro14 teams or will we see the same qualifying criteria as we currently see, which may result in a South African team taking the place of an Irish, Scottish or Welsh team in the top European competitions?
Will the SA teams benefit from rest weeks when the other nations are battling it out in Europe?
Are the changes for the good?
Our view is that the upside of taking in the SA teams (a reported £600k per Pro12 team per year) is a reasonable sum, but nothing like the sort of money that will start to challenge the financial hegemony of the English and French leagues.
The danger is that the push for the short term financial upside leads to a longer term decline as supporters and viewers failed to buy in to the new “product”.
Super Rugby’s recent expansion in terms of number of teams and geographical reach has resulted in declining crowds and TV audiences, as viewers switch off citing a complex tournament, too many weak teams and a lack of affinity with a large number of their team’s opponents.
Celtic Rugby would do well to learn the lessons from Super Rugby’s expansion. There is a need to try and keep pace with the financial clout of the French and English leagues, but if this isn’t done carefully it could accelerate the league’s decline.
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