PRO 14 gave SA a lifeline and an option for the future
In London in April, SANZAAR came to the irrefutable conclusion that Super Rugby in its 18-team format wasn’t working, and agreed painful decisions were inevitable.
Cutting the competition down by three teams was the preferred outcome but it wouldn’t come without collateral damage.
SA Rugby saw the down-scaling as an opportunity rather than a hurdle, unlike Australia, who didn't see an up side.
The Australian Rugby Union handled the rationalisation of one of its teams with all the skill of a drunken carpark fan maul after a big game.
SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux showed some deft boardroom bobbing and weaving as he opened communications with then PRO12 counterpart Martin Anayi about the possibility of adding two SA teams – the Cheetahs and Southern Kings.
The ambitious British, Irish and European organisation also saw the opportunity and dialogue began, which gave Roux a sweetener to sell to the SA teams on the Super Rugby chopping block.
The Cheetahs and Kings could fight for Super Rugby inclusion through costly arbitration and face potential ruin, or they could be pioneers in the expansion of a competition that wants to grow to a level where it competes with England’s Aviva Premiership.
In the end the decision was easy.
“When I joined two years ago, the board and shareholders [of PRO 12 as it was then] had a very clear plan that this tournament should expand,” Anayi said.
“It’s an across border tournament and we sit in an economic environment where we have to do things differently. We need bigger first party markets where we can spread across multiple territories. With that in mind we always looked at South Africa to fit that bill.
“When we talked to Jurie it all came together quickly because those fundamental pieces were in place and so it was mutually beneficial, but in the right way. It took a matter of months to put together.
“When we chose to go with South Africa we considered many aspects when looking to expand – logistics, player welfare, commercial value and the way the teams play in SA. They were playing the same attacking rugby we were playing.
“When you put that together with the time zone – it’s only an overnight flight and no jet lag – that hurdle took care of itself. There is also a passionate fan base, which made it compelling.”
The hasty inclusion of the two SA teams had a negative impact on the Currie Cup, where the Cheetahs had to field two teams in overlapping competitions.
But these were small sacrifices for an initial R25m a year competition fee from PRO 14 and the opportunity to play against some of the best club teams in the world.
“Our first objective was to get two teams playing international rugby and we have achieved that, which has provided commercial value through broadcast revenue and sponsorship income,” Roux said.
“It will be tough in the first two years, we are not blind to that, but hopefully after that period SA will have proved itself.
“The Kings are in much better financial shape than they were. As with any international competition SA Rugby has the responsibility to underwrite the teams that participate in a competition. PRO 14 is no different.
“There are some clashes with the local competitions [Currie Cup] in this first season but we will overcome that after our restructuring meetings.
“Sacrifices will have to be made if you go global, and one of the possible scenarios is that there is a reduction of strength versus strength to a single round rather than a double round [in the Currie Cup].
“The global calendar is changing in 2021 and there will be significant changes because it will affect how we can restructure our tournaments.”
The Cheetahs are currently on play-off position while the Kings (at the time of writing) had yet to win a game in PRO 14.
But both sides have added to the flavour and diversity of the tournament and with PRO 14 in the market to expand even further, teams such as newly licensed franchises such as the Pumas and Griquas, could find themselves in the tournament in years to come.
PRO 14 has given SA a compelling alternative to Super Rugby.