New Era

'It will be better for everyone. The South African teams will mean bigger, tougher games'

The Sharks, Bulls, Stormers and Lions are due to join European rugby next season – what lies ahead?

siya-2 Siya Kolisi will be joining the Pro16 with the Sharks.

THE SOUTH AFRICANS are coming north and it could be a momentous move for the competition known as the Celtic League, Pro12, and Pro14 at different stages over the last 20 years.

A cross-border battle is due to take place as soon as 19 June when a South African team will meet a European side in the Rainbow Cup final in Italy, travel restrictions permitting.

And from next season, South Africa’s four powerhouse franchises – the Bulls, the Lions, the Sharks, and the Stormers – are due to join what will become a Pro16, albeit with a snappier name, on a permanent basis. The new tournament has yet to be officially confirmed but an announcement is expected in the next month.

South African rugby has been interested in shifting into the European market for a long time. As long ago as 2005, a Rainbow Cup very nearly came into existence

For its part, the Celtic League/Pro12 has been interested in expansion for some time, its member unions keen to grow the competition as a commercial proposition.

In 2017, the possibility of a US expansion was very real, with cities in the States putting together bids to host franchises, but when South Africa’s Cheetahs and Kings were dropped from Super Rugby that year, the Pro12 jumped at the chance of integrating them into a new Pro14.

The Cheetahs gradually became competitive but the Kings were a financial mess and the Pro14 was always glancing flirtatiously at South Africa’s real powers – the four big franchises it has now managed to partner up with.

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The Kings have folded as a franchise due to their monetary issues, but the jettisoned Cheetahs remain outraged. Rassie Erasmus, SA Rugby’s director of rugby, has been working on getting them into the European Rugby Continental Shield – the tier below the Challenge Cup – next season, but it remains to be seen what happens next.

In South Africa, the pandemic accelerated their interest in Europe, with New Zealand Rugby’s desire to push forward with Australian teams and a possible Pacific Island influence leaving SA Rugby with a straightforward decision to redirect their key franchises to Europe. 

Super Rugby as it existed before Covid-19 presented plenty of issues for South African sides. There were glory days – the Bulls won three titles – but travelling to New Zealand and Australia was always a major challenge given the distance and difference in time zones.

“Tricky” is how BJ Botha describes it. The former Springbok spent seven years playing for the Sharks in Super Rugby before moving to Ireland to star for Ulster and Munster. 

bj-botha BJ Botha played for the Sharks before coming to Ireland. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

His experiences came before Super Rugby added Argentinian and Japanese sides to the mix but Botha remembers the challenge of dealing with jet lag even when the teams flew business class and took their melatonin supplements.

“You get to the other side in New Zealand and either you’re wide awake at the wrong time or you can’t stay awake when you need to,” says Botha.

Meanwhile, back in South Africa, the games were being broadcast on TV early in the morning – something that won’t be the case with the new Pro16 competition.

“We’ve been used to it for a long time but now we’ll have games in the later afternoon and evening,” says South African rugby writer Jon Cardinelli, who also points out that Super Rugby’s expansion in recent years made it hard for fans to follow.

“When Super Rugby got really complicated in the latter days, people lost interest. Most people couldn’t understand the log because it was all over the place.

“But at the same time, lots of people don’t understand what going to the Pro16 really means. It’s going to change so many things in South Africa, so it will take some time for fans to get their heads around that.”

There will still be long-distance travel to the tune of roughly 11 hours – and plenty of the same for Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and Italian sides – but the time difference of just one hour makes things far more manageable.

One other challenge is that the four South African teams will now shift their playing season into their summer – December to March – rather than through the winter down in that part of the world. Coming up to play in the European winter with its wind and rain will also be interesting.

“Some of the South African coaches have experience of being in the Northern Hemisphere where the weather in the winter is really bad,” says Cardinelli.

“Your average South African player has no real experience of that unless they’ve been on a Springboks tour. 

“And then down here, you have this scenario where they’re playing in Jo’burg where there are thunderstorms and a week after they’re in Cape Town where it’s 35 degrees and a very different kind of humidity. Durban gets sub-tropically hot. That’s going to be a weird element of the tournament.”

Coaches will need to have game plans for all conditions, which hints at one of the major attractions of integrating the South Africans – getting a completely new tactical and physical challenge.

aphelele-fassi Aphelele Fassi of the Sharks will be a star in the Pro16. Howard Cleland / INPHO Howard Cleland / INPHO / INPHO

The Lions play a very daring brand of rugby, the Stormers too, and while the Sharks do kick plenty, they can also break out into thrilling attacking rugby. The Bulls are a Jake White side so come with certain traditional strengths but do also have good skills.

South African rugby always involves a physical edge and in that sense, Botha is fascinated to see how the European teams cope.

“There’s going to be some adaption there,” says Botha. “Physicality counts, dominating the collisions counts, winning the gainline.

“We know the South African teams will bring that day in, day out. The adaption will be more so for the teams in the Northern Hemisphere who don’t face that week in, week out.”

The Pro14 has served as the qualifying tournament for the Champions Cup and the South Africans naturally want in on that part of the jigsaw too.

It’s understood that they won’t be involved in the Champions Cup straight away next season but it seems highly likely that next season’s Pro16 competition will allow the South African teams to qualify for Europe from 2022 onwards.

The probable format of the new competition will be that it runs as a straightforward league, with all 16 teams competing in a single table. The top eight will go into the following season’s Champions Cup, as well as qualifying for the Pro16 quarter-finals, which would be followed by semi-finals and a final.

Previously, the Pro14 involved 21 regular-season games but this is set to be reduced to 18, with no clashes with the Test rugby calendar. Fewer games, but the hope is that this will ensure teams field their strongest teams far more often. 

The race for Champions Cup spots could be an enthralling narrative.

“It’s the obvious next step if we have teams in the Pro16,” says Botha. “There will obviously be concerns about who misses out [from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Italy] on Europe as a result but we know the Irish provinces are stronger now.”

Cardinelli points out that using the league to target European qualification will be an entirely new concept for the South African teams.

“We’ve never had that before, we just played Super Rugby and there was no other competition to qualify for, so that’s another exciting element.

“Fans would love it [the Champions Cup] too, imagine a French club coming here to South Africa to play.”

rassie-erasmus-celebrates Rassie Erasmus understands how European club rugby works. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The expectation is that SA Rugby will initially sign up for four or five years, paying a participation fee of around €6 million per season to the existing 12 clubs, but the hope is that this agreement will be for the long haul. Pro16 organisers believe this is the final format they have long been searching for. 

Their expectation is that South Africa being on board will hugely increase the commercial potential of the competition, something that private equity firm CVC – who bought a 28% stake in the league last year – are very keen on seeing come to fruition. There is hope that the Pro16 could double or treble its turnover in the next six or seven years.

Of course, Covid-19 could still be a big factor by the start of the 2021/22 season but the Pro16 is already looking at contingency plans in the event that the South African teams can’t start doing their mini-tours up here and vice versa for the Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and Italian sides.

Whenever the pandemic is in the past, Botha reckons we might see fans making the odd special trip too.

“After Covid obviously, South African supporters would have a more realistic chance of travelling for these games than going to New Zealand in Super Rugby,” says Botha.

“It will happen more and I think even the other way because just think about the great travel experience an Irish fan could have going to South Africa or the other way around.”

Botha struggles to see the negatives of this move and reckons it will benefit the Springboks, who will now have all their players playing in the same competitions rather than being split across the Northern and Southern Hemisphere calendars.

Of course, this move also leads to us considering whether the Springboks might follow at Test level and eventually be integrated into the Six Nations. 

However, Botha and Cardinelli both stress how much South African rugby values its rivalry with the All Blacks, the annual battles in the Rugby Championship – which could also expand with the integration of Japan in the coming years. 

It’s a debate for another day but SA Rugby’s four big guns in the club game are on their way north in the near future and it promises to push competition in the Northern Hemisphere to a new level. 

“It will be better for everyone,” says Botha. “The South African teams will mean bigger, tougher games on a more regular basis and trips to South Africa will be a proving ground for everyone else.”

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