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Rainbow Cup is just a cover... the South Africans really want seat at the European top table

Neil Francis


 

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Short-lived adventure: Cheetahs players celebrate a try against Ulster during the PRO14 season in 2018

Short-lived adventure: Cheetahs players celebrate a try against Ulster during the PRO14 season in 2018

�INPHO/Frikkie Kapp

Short-lived adventure: Cheetahs players celebrate a try against Ulster during the PRO14 season in 2018

The press release a few weeks ago that there was to be a Rainbow Cup sometime in April this year is good news - I think.

Well, you have to examine the detail before you are sure. Details? Sorry, this is the Guinness PRO14, there are no details available.

Two weeks after the announcement, there has been no follow-up. Covid has been a major factor here, yet none of the managers of any PRO14 teams are any the wiser.

There are 60m people living in South Africa in a country of 1.22m square kilometres. There is no chance of halting the spread of the disease, nor even a suggestion of a rollout of vaccinations this side of Christmas 2021.

My guess is that the PRO14 will have to extend their season into an elongated knockout series.

You are absolutely right, I am making this up as I go along - but then so are the PRO14.

In the quest for an expansion franchise a couple of seasons ago, Martin Anayi, the PRO14 CEO, decided to go west.

The United States would be a vibrant market to tap into, but the prospect of playing in Houston against an unnamed, unincorporated franchise in Texas wasn't a viable option. Have you been to Houston in April or May?

The heat is not really the major factor because you can just tell the players to drink lots of water.

The issue is not hydration but time zones - six hours' time difference is easily big enough to persuade television companies that it is not worth their while.

Anyway, there would have been more people watching Leinster play Connacht in the RDS Arena last Saturday under Covid conditions than there would have been watching Leinster playing Houston under normal conditions.

A bit like the bloke who asked every girl at the nightclub for a dance until somebody said yes, Anayi eventually got a dance, except he had to go to South Africa to get one.

The Cheetahs and Southern Kings were an unmitigated disaster. The curiosity value died pretty much after the first series of fixtures and all they did in essence was weaken the brand.

So what, one season after the departure of the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings (due to liquidation), will the four South African Super Rugby franchises bring to the PRO14?

The first clue is in their names. The Super Rugby franchise tags have been discarded and it is intended that the Vodacom Bulls, DHL Western Province, Cell C Sharks and the Xerox Lions will compete in the PRO16, initially as named in the Rainbow Cup.

The rights will be divided out between eirSport/Premier Sports on this side of the world and SuperSport in South Africa.

Super Rugby was dying as live crowds and television audiences dwindled.

Logistics and jet lag were problems for the travelling South African players and that did inhibit performance.

From SuperSport's perspective, Cape Town to Sydney was a 10-hour time zone. It was 11 hours if your South African team was playing in Auckland - it's hard to try and promote some prime time telly for subscribers or advertisers in the middle of the night.

How much of a factor were SuperSport in the divorce and break-up of Super Rugby?

The Rugby Championship would always prevail because wherever the All Blacks played the Springboks it would be a sell-out. Even on this side of the planet people will get up early on a Saturday morning to watch that particular match-up.

When the Kiwis unhitched their wagon and set up their cosy trans-Tasman league with the Australians, it meant that the South African clubs were effectively set adrift.

The Argentinian franchise (Jaguares) weren't too happy either, but at least the Saffers had a lifeboat - Europe!

The Carling Currie Cup still has very strong support in Africa and when the Toyota Cheetahs won the competition in 2019 in front of about 45,000 people in Vodacom Park in Bloemfontein against the Golden Lions, the question had to be asked what exactly were they up to in the time that they were in the PRO14? I watched that match - they were a serious outfit in the final.

I suppose the first thing that needs to be done before a ball is kicked in anger is that the new South African sides will have to sign a "we are going to take this competition seriously" clause.

Sending academy squads to Europe and vice-versa will ensure that this new competition will last. Conversely, and this could pose a bigger problem, is that the South African sides arrive fully locked and loaded and ready to go.

Can you imagine what a full-strength Bulls side would do to Zebre, Benetton or the Dragons up in the high veldt in Pretoria? You're going to have spankings.

It doesn't seem to have bothered any of the Welsh sides in the last few seasons where they come to Dublin and get 50 points put on them as they don't even bother to compete.

A few pints, a night in Dublin and then home again? Fantastic!

The Welsh continuously dream of an Anglo-Welsh league, and then and only then will they be carried off the field on their shields.

They have publicly professed no interest in a PRO16 with four strong South African sides in it.

However, if they don't wake from their torpor and continuous apathy to the PRO14 they will end up in the Kentucky Fried Chicken league in Wales in splendid isolation.

The truth is that, given the option, the Saffers wouldn't bother their backside joining the PRO14.

Yes, it works for their television people and it works on time zones, but Rodney Parade on a wild winter's night? What is the bait?

We have already established that Rassie Erasmus is a smart bloke. He won the World Cup with the third best side in the competition.

They did, however, have Japan in the quarters and only scraped by Wales in the semis, but easily disposed of an England side who had shot their bolt at that stage.

Despite the amount of Saffers plying their trade in Europe, only nine of that World Cup-winning squad of 33 were playing their rugby outside of South Africa.

If these players don't have a high-quality club competition to play in, the Springboks will not retain the World Cup and will not perform competitively in the Rugby Championship.

Those South African powerhouse club sides have no real interest in a PRO16. What they do want is Toulouse, Clermont, Racing 92, Saracens, Exeter and Leicester (when they recover from their current slump). They will also be quite happy to compete against Leinster, Munster and Ulster as well.

Rassie has to have his players playing competitive club rugby, and all the better if they do so in some of the fortresses around Europe.

That has to be the promise - an enlarged Champions Cup with all of the South African sides playing in it. Qualification from the PRO16, if they take it seriously, would be a cinch.

It leaves the weaker sides in the PRO14 in a position of peril. Shape up or ship out.

There is no way the South Africans would countenance playing in a PRO16 unless there was a big, fat juicy carrot. They will have to have a name change. The ESARCC doesn't really have a ring about it but neither does the Seven Nations, but that is what is happening here.

South Africa have committed to the Rugby Championship for 10 years - but that is in August and September.

It wouldn't bother South Africa having a Harlem Globetrotter existence, having to spend seven or eight weeks in Europe.

This is what is coming down the line folks.

If you are into dancing, well then the words of the long-dead DJ Casey Kasem will be familiar - "details coming up"... eventually.

Belfast Telegraph


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