The South African Rugby Union’s member vote on Tuesday confirmed that all four Super Rugby sides, the Bulls, Stormers, Sharks and Lions, are in favour of pursuing a move to Europe to join an expanded PRO14 competition.
The blockbuster move would forever change the landscape of professional rugby, with a clear power drain on the Southern Hemisphere creating a crowded European landscape.
The South African sides would bolster the ‘PRO’ competition comprised of Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italian clubs, which has seen Dublin-based Leinster dominate over the last three seasons with three straight titles.
The announcement of the desired move garnered a divided reaction with equal parts of excitement and disappointment in both Europe and South Africa by fans.
The clear benefit of having the South African sides involved excited those who have desired a tougher regular season in the Pro14, with more competitive fixtures to add further intrigue to the season’s storylines. It was labelled a ‘class level-up’ for a tournament that will become ‘a hell of a lot harder to win’.
I think a PRO16 with the Big Four SA franchises would be a class level-up for the tournament.
— Three Red Kings (@threeredkings) September 29, 2020
One things for sure, as soon as the Lions, the Stormers, the Bulls and the Sharks come in the PRO16 is going to be a hell of a lot harder to win
— Rúaidhrí O'Connor (@RuaidhriOC) September 29, 2020
Great addition to the pro14 and will add serious competitiveness where it is lacking currently. Playing the biggest and best from SA will only benefit Irish clubs and our national team
— Daithín (@WaveyDaithin) September 29, 2020
On the opposite side, some South African Rugby supporters were concerned whether their own rugby will improve in a league where the stars are often not required to play from some of the stronger sides in the league. There is a perception that the Champions Cup is the greater priority of which it isn’t clear whether the South African teams would be a part of.
We going to a league where teams rest people for FINALS??? We playing in the Carabao Cup then! https://t.co/nmDBwPC94B
— Thala Msutu (@ThalaMsutu77) September 9, 2020
I honestly cannot see how it is going to beneficial for SA from a playing perspective. I think the quality of the Pro 14 week in week out is weaker than SR. Most of the big teams in the league place a bigger emphasis on the Champions Cup
— Matt Musindi (@MattMusindi) September 29, 2020
European fans were worried that the expanded Pro14 pushes the travel burden for players too far and the ‘locality’ of the competition would be lost, with away games out of reach for fans. One fan said that what people really want is a ‘British & Irish League’, merging the PRO14 with the Premiership.
Another fan feared that the PRO14 will inherit Super Rugby’s problems, importing a ‘failed system’ with conferences and too much travel. Another claimed it ‘feels like a mess’ that flying to South Africa will be normal but a Welsh side like the Dragons can’t go to Bristol to play the Bears.
The SA Super Rugby sides will add quality and revenue to the league but from a Welsh POV it still won’t generate much interest in the league. Still a lot apathy towards it here. What people really want to see is an British & Irish League. Games that fans can easily travel to.
— Jamie Phillips (@JNPhillips4) September 29, 2020
Not in favour of this pro16 idea. Too much travelling for the players
— Rory (@rory_cremin) September 29, 2020
Terrible, terrible move from Pro14 shipping a failed system from Super Rugby here. Nothing against the SA teams but the travel and conference set up holds little appeal.
— Colin McConaghie (@ColinMcConaghie) September 29, 2020
It’s still absolutely ridiculous that the Dragons driving half an hour down the road to Bristol for a game isn’t normal, yet flying 12 hours to South Africa is. The PRO14 or PRO16 or whatever just feels like a mess, to me
— Lucas Ward (@LucasWard_) September 29, 2020
Arguably the biggest loser from the suggested move is the Cheetahs franchise, who will be cut from the Pro14 along with the already insolvent Southern Kings, to make way for the four remaining South African Super Rugby franchises.
After being dropped from Super Rugby, the Cheetahs are now looking at a second expulsion from a professional competition in only a few short years.
One proud Cheetahs fan vowed to ‘not support any SA team again’ after hearing of the announcement, and will now back Connacht and Ireland in the club & international rugby. It was labelled ‘really really tough’ and ‘wrong’ for the franchise to be dumped after they committed their future to Europe.
Thanks to all the rugby friends made during the last 3 season in Pro14. Thanks for everything.
SARU decidee to cut the Cheetahs from Pro16
Rugby in SA is dead in my eyes
— DJ Rossouw (@DjRossouw87) September 29, 2020
Axing the Cheetahs from the Pro14 was wrong. They took the risk, they made it work, they were a great addition to the tournament and to then allow those who turned their nose up at it to profit from the risk the Cheetahs made work because their sure thing blew up is wrong.
— Tim O'Connor (@timoconnorbl) September 29, 2020
Feel for the Cheetahs & their fans, always seem to be in the receiving end. Dropped from Super Rugby, forced to join Lions as the Cats in Super Rugby & now dropped from the Pro16, history of challenges. I get the financial aspect & not being 1 of the big 4, still tough #Cheetahs
— Graeme Peacock (@graemepeacock05) September 29, 2020
The Cheetahs are dumped again.
It’s a hell of a ride for any Free State Rugby fan.
Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and Lions to join the new PRO16.
Cheetahs to join a SANZAAR series comp.
— Jared Wright (@jaredwright17) September 29, 2020
Really really tough on the Cheetahs. #Pro16
— Harpin' On Rugby ? (@HarpinOnRugby) September 29, 2020
Cheetahs have been royally screwed… That said I’m very much looking forward to seeing the big SA franchises in the Pro16…
— Bern (@KeithClarke1) September 29, 2020
The implications of the move for both the Super Rugby and new PRO16 competitions won’t be known until after the fact, with both leagues taking on enormous risk divorcing and marrying the four South African sides at the same time.
From a Springboks and South African player welfare point of view, the move is a positive moving all the competition into a friendly time zone for the South African audience, while the players will do less travel than what they currently do in Super Rugby.
Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus, who formerly coached Munster in the Pro14 league, highlighted some of the benefits as he sees it.
“The first benefit is that as a fan, you’ll be watching the game in the same time zone. You’ll watch it in the afternoon, have a braai (barbecue) and a few beers with mates. It makes a difference,” he said.
“For us as coaches and players, you can get on a plane, sleep on it and actually play the next day.”
Erasmus has expressed his feeling in the past that European rugby is much closer to test match rugby than Super Rugby, advocating it as an ideal place to pick his Springbok squad from, with good form in Europe translating well to international level.
Many high-profile Springboks are already contracted across Europe, from Top 14 teams in France, Premiership clubs in England, with a few in the PRO14 that may get the chance to play against their old teams.
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