JOHANNESBURG - Excitement ... and plenty of it! That’s how Cheetahs head coach Rory Duncan described the mood in his team’s camp ahead of their PRO14 debut this weekend.
Where just a few months ago Duncan and his players would have been thinking about tackling the Pumas in Nelspruit, Griquas in Kimberley and the Lions in Joburg, they are now preparing for visits to Parma in Italy, Cork in Ireland, Swansea in Wales and Edinburgh in Scotland, among other places, and tomorrow Belfast, for their opener against Ulster.
It’s a new adventure for the Cheetahs (and the Kings), who’ve joined the PRO14 competition after being dumped out of Super Rugby. The two South African teams will visit places they would never have dreamed of visiting and they’ll face players they would have never imagined coming up against.
“The mood is one of excitement, that’s for sure,” said Duncan ahead of his team’s opening clash in Belfast, where a host of South African players await his team’s arrival.
“It’s been a short build-up after getting the green light to join the competition, but the players are keen to get going now. Most of the places we’re going to will be first-time visits for many of the players so that’s exciting in itself.”
The competition runs from Friday to the end of May 2018, with each of the 14 teams playing 21 regular season games. There are several bye weeks though.
“We’re staring down the barrel a bit ... there’s a lot of rugby to come, in places we don’t know and against some teams we know little about,” said Duncan. “Managing the players will be a crucial part of the job.”
The Cheetahs will also still be fighting on the Currie Cup front in South Africa until late October as they look to defend the title they won last year, so it’s a big juggling act to push two quality teams into the field for the next two months.
“We knew what was coming so we chopped and changed quite a bit from one match to the next in the Currie Cup, just to keep the players fresh,” said Duncan. “We’ve got around 50 contracted senior players in Bloemfontein, so we have enough players to play quality rugby in both competitions, especially when you include the juniors as well. But sure, it’s going to be a challenge at first.”
So, how much does Duncan know about the likes of Italian side Zebre, Ireland’s Connacht, the Glasgow Warriors, Leinster and Munster? “We’ve seen them in action, we know some of the players, but we’ll still watch videos of the teams we’re coming up against,” said Duncan.
“It’s a matter of taking things one week at a time and not getting ahead of oneself. We’re going to train each week like we would if we were playing Currie Cup rugby ... and every team has its strengths and weaknesses. The Pro14 guys are no different.
“The only difference is the travel and the fact some of our games will be in the wet. But we’re not going to let that affect us or the style of rugby we want to play. Just because it’s wet doesn’t mean one has to creep into one’s shell ... we’ll keep playing our brand.”