South Africa’s two Pro14 coaches have given the Europe-based competition the thumbs-up and encouraged rugby bosses to consider getting more teams involved in future.
The Cheetahs and Kings have just completed their first stint in the competition, which previously included teams from only Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy.
The inclusion of the two South Africa sides has been widely hailed, with the Cheetahs especially doing well – they finished third in conference A with 12 wins from 21 matches – while the Kings struggled to just one win in conference B.
However, both Rory Duncan of the Cheetahs and Deon Davids of the Kings said they, and the players, had enjoyed the competition.
“It’s been brilliant,” said Cheetahs boss Duncan.
“It’s a great competition and the players were excited about visiting new places on a regular basis and facing different players each weekend. It would be great to see more SA teams in the competition.”
Davids added: “It was a fantastic experience for all of us. There were plenty of firsts for a lot of the squad members, like visiting new towns and cities, and experiencing different cultures and styles of rugby. It was very enjoyable.”
The Kings boss further stated it would be good if more South African players featured in the Pro14.
“It is a high-quality competition and because you’re up against different players and teams from so many different countries you’re learning all the time.
“The styles and mindsets you go up against are always changing and different and that teaches the players to adapt and learn quickly. The pressures each and every match are different ... and that can only be a benefit to the players.”
There has been talk in recent days of more SA teams joining the Cheetahs and Kings in the more lucrative, travel-friendly and time-zone-friendly Northern Hemisphere from 2020, when the current Super Rugby deals are renegotiated and come into force, but these have been denied as just rumours and speculation by numerous rugby bosses involved in SA Super Rugby franchises.
It would, however, seem to be an option that is certainly on the table.
Duncan said there were few negatives playing in the Pro14.
“From a travel perspective it was a lot easier (than in Super Rugby), and that’s a big plus. Sure, you travel more often, but the trips are shorter, and it’s quality opposition each week, in trying conditions. My players have grown and matured quite a lot.
“The only tough part was the weather at times ... and going from a hot Free State summer to the cold of Europe. It snowed, there was sleet, strong winds, icy temperatures, so there are those extremes to deal with.”
The Kings sadly battled throughout the nearly 10-month competition, but Davids felt his team’s and the Cheetahs’ late inclusion in Pro14 last year didn’t help.
“We couldn’t properly prepare via a pre-season, and we weren’t able to build depth, and the injuries got to us in the end,” he said.
“It’s a long, demanding competition, and if you’re going to be successful you need all your things in place, and you need a lot of players.”
Not too many rugby fans outside of the Eastern Cape and the Free State would have kept an eye on what the Kings and Cheetahs were up to each week - mainly because the competition ran throughout the “off season” of November, December and January and then while the more established Super Rugby competition was, and still is, ongoing.
Duncan though said he and his players never felt “left out” of the rugby programme in South Africa.
“No, never. The competition though, and our participation in it, will gain more traction as it goes on. If more teams (from SA) were involved it might be appreciated more ... but that will happen in time.”