Ulster will savour South African tests: Best
Former Ulster and Ireland forward Neil Best believes PRO12 players will relish the opportunity of playing South African club sides should the Cheetahs and Southern Kings be welcomed into the league next season.
It was confirmed yesterday that both teams would be axed from Super Rugby, with a statement from the Cheetahs confirming they would now pursue "the prospect of appearing in an alternative international competition", widely believed to be the PRO12.
If such a prospect still seems far-fetched to some fans, the odds now favour the idea that Ulster will soon be playing league games in Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth, although the possibility of the South African teams taking some 'home' games to England has also been mooted.
Having played rugby all over the world for Ireland, spent a considerable portion of his career in England and since worked and played in the USA, Canada and now Singapore, Best is more qualified than most to discuss the benefits of a globe-hopping schedule, and thinks Ulster players will be energised by the prospect.
"I would love to have played more club rugby against sides from the southern hemisphere and I am sure the Ulster boys can't wait to test themselves in South Africa next season," he said.
"Logistics are nothing more than that, and providing the set-up is professional, they shouldn't be a barrier. As an athlete, I would have been more concerned about a substantial time difference than the flight time, so South Africa is no problem there.
"And, let's be honest, Ulster aren't going to mind a December or January trip to South Africa... I'm not sure it'll be the same the other way round."
Best added: “For the fans, it means a few more hours online than in previous seasons to explore what away trips are doable, though I wouldn’t be surprised if both teams end up playing a number of their home matches in the south of England.
“Sadly for me, Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth aren’t really any closer to Singapore than Belfast.”
There has already been a degree of consternation concerning the idea that, in a league already containing also-rans in the shape of Italian duo Zebre and Treviso, the PRO12 hardly needs more non-competitive teams, as the Cheetahs and Kings have been in Super Rugby.
But, given the TV revenue they will bring to a league whose broadcasting deal is dwarfed by those in England and France, Best sees it as a fiscal decision.
“It’s more of a commercial exercise than one to raise standards of the competition,” said the 18-times-capped international who has carved out a successful career with shipping giant Braemar Shipping PLC.
“Neither the Cheetahs nor Kings have been particularly successful in recent seasons, nor do they have many household names in their squads.
“Their attendances are low and ultimately that is why Super Rugby is willing to let them go.
“Growing rugby and developing the sport is not the same thing as strengthening the commercial hand of the PRO12. If it wasn’t about money I would have been looking to European cities that could have successfully hosted a franchise and look to develop players and a fan base.
“But only time will tell if this was a commercially desperate or financially prudent move.”
The expected inclusion of South African sides has usurped the long-talked about expansion into North American markets with New York, Houston, Boston, Toronto and Washington having been floated as possible locations for a new side.
Delving into the growing game across the Atlantic would not be precluded by the presence of the South African duo, although Best would like to see the league continue eastward first.
“I played in the US and Canada and think they have the stadia, players and fan base to host a team or two. The time difference would be a negative but it can be managed,” he said. “But whether I would place the US or Canada above exploring markets closer to home is a clear no.”