The entrance of the Southern Kings and the Cheetahs into the newly expanded PRO14 marks an exciting new chapter for South African rugby – and to a similar extent the game in the north.
For the South African teams, culled from the reduced Super Rugby tournament back in April, it gives them the perfect escape route and also saves the South African Rugby Union (SARU) from being torn to shreds for taking top class rugby away from the heartlands of Free State and the Eastern Cape.
With the South African Rand trading at 17.5 to the British Pound it’s a big injection of cash to the local game while a reported £6million (Dh29.1m) is going back the other way with Supersport purchasing TV rights for the new tournament.
Each of the 12 existing European clubs will receive £500,000 (Dh2.4m) as a one-off boost this season, which will greatly help to retain players and bring in a few stars, like Leigh Halfpenny who is being tempted back from Toulon to the Scarlets.
There are those of course in the south who will meet the expansion with great suspicion. A similar move was tried in Super Rugby two years ago with the Jaguares from Argentina and the Sunwolves from Japan admitted to an enlarged 18 team format. The result: disaster.
The new four conference system became a farce as South African teams, now spared facing New Zealand opponents in the regular season, excelled while Australian teams, who now had to play Kiwi teams every fortnight, nose-dived.
So bad did results become crowds and ratings dipped as fans turned off the convoluted fixture list and eventually the real power brokers – the broadcasters – said enough was enough.
It came to a head in April when SANZAAR announced the tournament would shrink back to 15 teams with two South African teams – the Cheetahs and Kings – and one Australian team to be axed.
But now Super Rugby’s loss is PRO14’s gain – and don’t expect this northern expansion to go the same way as the south.
There are four reasons why the PRO14 move will succeed where Super Rugby move failed.
Firstly travel – a flight from Europe to South Africa is a lot less nightmarish than many of the flights in Super Rugby involving New Zealand, Argentina, Japan and Australia. The travel schedules of some Super Rugby sides are so arduous its amazing they get on to the field at all.
Secondly time zones – most of Europe and South Africa are on the same time zone so it means matches will come through at viewer-friendly times for both markets, adding some prime rugby fixtures to the broadcast schedule.
Thirdly, a global season: PRO14 will be played in South Africa’s summer so it means the Republic will now have summer rugby. Apart from some hot days in Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth, year round rugby is a tantalising prospect for fanatics in South Africa.
Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, the rugby: the Cheetahs and the Kings are both known for their expansive styles and there will be some intriguing match ups between northern brawn and southern speed.
The PRO14 will produce extremes of climate – a chilly evening in Newport to a warm afternoon on the highveldt – and extremes of styles, as well as a few unfortunate match-ups, but there is every reason at this early stage to think bigger may be better in this case.