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'PRO14 - not Super Rugby - is best...

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'PRO14 - not Super Rugby - is best competition for South African teams to play in'

No sooner is Franco Smith on the phone from the 27°C Bloemfontein is he asking about Tuesday’s weather in Ireland. Participating in a rugby tournament that encompasses north and south hemispheres can offer climatic challenges, but the Cheetahs coach is taking everything about the fledgling experiment of South African sides in the PRO14 in his stride. 

It sounds onerous preparing for an 18-night, three-match tour taking his team to Galway, Llanelli and Dublin. It’s their fourth of five trips this season across the equator, but Smith insists this schedule is preferable to the Super Rugby start awaiting this weekend’s travelling South African franchises. 

The Sharks kick-off with a visit to Singapore, a six-hour jump ahead in time followed by a six-hour reverse back through time zones for a round two home match. Meanwhile, the Lions are headed in the opposition direction, going six hours back in time to Buenos Aires before retracing their steps across the South Atlantic to play in Cape Town in round two. 

It was 2017 when Cheetahs were last on Super Rugby’s roster. Their week in Argentina, followed a few months later by a three-week tour the other way to New Zealand and Singapore, meant far less time overseas than in the PRO14 where they will be abroad for a total of nearly nine weeks this season. 

But Smith’s preference is Europe as there is currently just a two-hour time difference between Bloemfontein and Ireland, and the overnight flight north doesn’t cause body clocks the upset that occurs when flying east or west.  

“It’s much more difficult going forward and back in time. It takes four days to a week to give maximum performance on the field. The amount of time you gain and lose is immense. That has an effect on sleeping patterns and you have got to adapt a bit better after long hours on a flight. 

“When you go north, it’s just an overnight flight. You’re quickly recovered and feel better, so there’s no real effect training-wise. It’s definitely much easier travelling.”

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They are other benefits. Whereas byes are at a Super Rugby premium, four of Cheetahs’ five trips north this season are followed by a non-match week back at home. There’s also no rush getting up north in the first place.    

Cheetahs have trained full-on at home in the early part of this week and only fly to Ireland on Wednesday night with a squad of 25, arriving in Dublin at 9am on Thursday. They then head to Galway by bus on Friday for Saturday’s late afternoon kick-off. 

“We’re happy with the schedule. The way the trips are spread over the season is done really well. It gives us a chance to be good at home and also to travel at the right stages,” says Smith.

“It’s also more suitable to finish our training here at home Monday and Tuesday. We have more numbers to train against, can sleep in our own beds a couple of nights more, and it gives us a good chance to be well prepared for the first game of the tour,” he continues, adding the reason he hasn’t taken the full allowance of 27 players at the start of this latest trip is it affords positional room to manoeuvre if bumps and bruises mean call-ups are necessary next week. 

“We do our checks and physically we have been fine. Our result at Munster at the beginning of the season wasn’t good (0-38), but we had a 41-minute ball-in-play match and they were only 12 points up until the 52nd minute. The score then went away from us, but it wasn’t due to fitness or recovery. 

“The second time against Cardiff Blues we were leading towards the end 21-11 and although we lost, I can’t blame it on the physical part (of travel). We then beat Zebre the next time we did it [flew in late], so no regrets. There has been good reward for the way we travel.”

Rival franchise Southern Kings are embarking on a similar February schedule. Cork, Dublin and Cardiff are their destinations on what is also their fourth trip of five this season across the equator. 

Travelling is second nature to Smith, who has thrown his lot in 100 per cent with Cheetahs this season after double-jobbing as Rassie Erasmus’ Springboks assistant. He was away for 130 days in 2017, but regular journeys don’t wear him down. “I’ve a special routine,” he says, adding the switch for Cheetahs from Super Rugby to PRO14 has provided fresh lease of life. 

Cheetahs boss Franco Smith on the touchline in Cardiff (Picture: Getty Images)

“There’s a real buzz about the team. Everyone is excited about going north. All the history and the extra tourism activities in the northern part of the world is a great attraction to the guys. There was different vibe going to New Zealand and Australia. For a bunch of young players that haven’t travelled much before, going north is a huge experience.”

Huge, too, is the calibre of rugby they are encountering in PRO14. Smith won’t say if other South African teams might join Cheetahs and Kings in the future. “That is a little bit out of my area, I can’t really comment.” But what he will say is the style of opposition is liberating. 

“I’ve said it many times now, even to South Africans here, and I was even chatting to Rassie Erasmus last week about it – it [PRO14] is the best competition for South Africa to play in. It’s very Test-match related.

“The way the Welsh, Irish and Scottish sides are performing in world rugby, with all those players playing in this competition, it’s a very important, integral part of the success of European rugby. For us South Africans to be involved, it’s very good. 

“Super Rugby is a little bit more liberal-minded, which is also good as it’s not negative, but there is basically no difference between Test match and northern hemisphere rugby, so it’s important for South African players to adapt to the very precise rugby, the very detailed rugby played up north.

“Super Rugby will now get a lot of attention in South Africa (as it starts again) but we won’t get less. We’ll get the same amount. The main thing is PRO14 is a very simple competition with a simple points system. It’s not as complicated as Super Rugby. A lot of people will keep interested and it’s great the tournaments will run alongside each other. A lot of people will compare and we will get a good comparison.”

Cheetahs are only halfway through their second PRO14 season and while there is some criticism of results, Smith says they can only improve. 

There won’t be any clash next season with local Currie Cup fixtures. That will help their squad focus solely on PRO14. Patience, like what was shown to the Italian clubs when they first joined in 2010, would also be of long-term assistance to the credibility of the two South African teams.  

“The Italians have slowly found their feet, but they now know what is required and the professionalism around their teams has grown,” says Smith, who was at the Treviso helm when they entered the league. 

“They now have proper rugby programmes and if that is the route the South African teams will fill, I will be excited to see what can happen in the next couple of years… we’re a long way off the team we want to be, but there are some good signs.”

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'PRO14 - not Super Rugby - is best competition for South African teams to play in' | RugbyPass