Johannesburg - SA Rugby’s “northern exposure” experiment of accommodating the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings in the PRO14 competition in Europe after they were voted off Super Rugby earlier in the year has produced a mixed bag of results.
With the two teams supposedly the guinea pigs of whether life would be rosier for South African rugby in the northern hemisphere if it finally left the contemptuous relationship bred by the familiarity of southern hemisphere rugby, the Cheetahs and the Kings’ campaigns have made for contrasting reading.
While the Cheetahs have given traction to the notion that local teams could thrive up north by being third in their pool and holding a knockout stage place, the Kings – with their myriad mitigating circumstances – languish last in theirs after losing all nine of their games before this weekend.
After campaigning in the shadows of Springbok and Currie Cup rugby since the competition began in September, the two coaches, Deon Davids (Kings) and Rory Duncan (Cheetahs), shared their early impressions of the competition a few days ago before it goes into a one-month break.
Duncan said: “We actually chatted with the players about it and one word we can use to describe it is it’s been exciting.
“It’s exciting for us to go to new territories and see new places – we’ve been going to Australia and New Zealand for so many years ... There are no preconceived notions and with the teams we play against, so we’ve got a fresh slate and approach".
Perhaps because their season has been rockier, Davids was more inclined to point out the logistical difficulties: “First of all, it’s been fantastic playing in this competition, but it’s been challenging in different ways from Super Rugby, which brought its own set of challenges.
“Where in Super Rugby you toured once and were away for three to four weeks, in this competition you have to fly to Wales or Ireland or both, come back home and fly back to Europe again. With the many bus trips, it can be quite taxing physically, so you have to take that into consideration.”
Signed up elsewhere
Duncan said the travel factor had improved compared with how it used to be with the trips to Australasia.
“From a travel perspective, there’s been a big difference to travelling to New Zealand and Australia. You fly in overnight and you can do a flush-out session later that afternoon, and you don’t have to worry about who slept and who didn’t".
The start to the tournament was harrowing for both sides for different reasons – the Cheetahs learning from their first two defeats that they’d have to change their approach and the Kings were just happy to get players on the park to play.
Davids not only lost 10 starting line-up players from the team that did so well towards the back end of Super Rugby as they signed up elsewhere to secure their futures, he also lost backroom staffers Dave Williams (attack, Cheetahs), Vuyo Zangqa (back line, German sevens team), team doctor Konrad von Hagen and technical analyst Lindsay Weyer (both Boks).
“When we played against the Scarlets, it was the first time I’d seen the team play together in a match situation,” said Davids.
“We’d had no friendlies and hardly any preparation and suddenly we were playing the defending champions – it was scary".
The Cheetahs thought their preparations had gone well, but were still ambushed in their first two games.
“We got a bit of a surprise the first time we went over there. We thought we’d prepared well, were leading the Currie Cup and had a good team, but we learnt that we’d have to make adjustments to our game plan,” said Duncan.
“They’re very physical. They play a direct game and are quite intelligent with their kicking game. After our first game against Munster, we said we had to change. We have, mostly with our game management and things are going smoother".
Davids was as effusive of the dynamism of the teams in the competition, even though they don’t include sides from the bigger English and French leagues.
“Their driving mauls are technically very good and well organised and so is their defence and the way they compete at the breakdown,” he said.
“There’s also a New Zealand influence in how they play because they like to offload and keep the ball alive and those teams who don’t like to play in their back 50 kick well – they’re very well-balanced in their approach".
The two South African teams are finding having to play at the peak of the southern hemisphere summer and the northern hemisphere winter a little tricky to deal with, although Duncan would love to see what advantage a combination of a 15:00 start and the Bloemfontein altitude might give the Cheetahs.
Looking ahead to the rest of the season, which will pick up again on January 6, Duncan said the Cheetahs were only looking to win their next game, while the Kings are “realistically” targeting improvements in all aspects.