JOHANNESBURG - Imagine being a player representing the Cheetahs and Kings and all that excitement in the belly. This weekend they go on a new adventure, the pioneers if you like, of testing themselves against some of the best teams in Europe - for the next nine months.
Of course it’s the start of the new-look Pro 14 competition, involving the best teams from Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy and now also the Cheetahs and Kings, who were booted out of Super Rugby. How they must now be thanking their lucky stars they are out of the at-times boring and dull Super Rugby competition and playing in the Pro 14, something that is new and exciting and very different.
No more long-haul flights across several times zones, no more boring same-old teams ... now some of the best cities in Europe await.
Imagine the excitement among the players of visiting places such as Cardiff, Cork, Galway, Edinburgh, Parma, Treviso, Dublin and Belfast. Heck, some of the players who’ll be touring these cities over the coming months haven’t ever set foot in Europe, so while there might once have been disappointment at missing out on Super Rugby there will now surely be thrills in the players’ minds of what lies ahead.
It’s a massively demanding competition, with the Cheetahs in Conference A and the Kings in Conference B, with all 14 teams ending up playing 21 round-robin matches. And while neither South African side has had much time to prepare for entry into the competition, with the Kings especially hard hit following the departure of several players, they will feel they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Not only will the players running out for the Cheetahs and Kings see places and enjoy experiences they otherwise might not have been able to, they will also be able to test themselves against players they don’t know and in conditions that will, in Europe, be very different to what they experience, generally, in South Africa. They will become better skilled and equipped players, hopefully comfortable playing on any surface, and in any conditions, in future. South African rugby can only benefit.
Then, of course, the players themselves will be exposed to teams and agents across Europe, opening doors for them in years to come to join up with far more lucrative sides than they are turning out for now.
Think of the 17 and 18-year-olds at school in the Eastern Cape and Bloemfontein right now who’ve just had a little success at schoolboy level ... the opportunities that await them if they apply their minds correctly are wonderful and amazing. South African rugby entering Europe could be - or rather, will be - a game-changer for many; individuals and teams.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if some of the men from the four “remaining” Super Rugby sides, the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers are a tad jealous of the players from the Cheetahs and Kings. If we had to ask them the question, 'where would you want to be playing your rugby in 2017?', many would surely say Pro 14, and not Super Rugby.
The new adventure begins on Friday with the Cheetahs against Ulster in Belfast and the next day it’s the Kings’ turn, against the Scarlets in Llanelli. Enjoy it boys; it’s going to be fun.