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It may not seem like a seismic shift, but is the news that the Cheetahs and Southern Kings are set to join a European competition the first move in South Africa’s eventual exit from Super Rugby?
The two teams are expected to be cut by South Africa’s governing rugby union body (SARU) from Super Rugby next Friday as the southern hemisphere competition is reduced from 18 to 15 teams.
Wasting no time in finding another home, it’s been reported by the BBC that the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs and Port Elizabeth-based Kings are poised to join the Pro12 as early as September this year, meaning a 14-team format for the upcoming season.
The Pro12 currently includes club teams from Ireland (Leinster, Munster, Connacht, Ulster), Wales (Cardiff Blues, Scarlets, Ospreys, Newport Dragons), Scotland (Edinburgh, Glasgow Warriors) and Italy (Benetton Treviso, Zebre).
The South African additions would be the first major change to the competition since the introduction of the Italian sides in 2010.
It’s been reported this year that the Pro12 was looking at expansion options, with even potential franchises in the United States and Georgia.
However, the courting of South Africa’s Super Rugby sides seemed like the best love story.
SARU are believed to be keen to join a northern hemisphere tournament because of similar time zones between South Africa and Europe, which makes match kick-offs compatible for television broadcasters.
So if the move is confirmed next week and the Cheetahs and Southern Kings make a successful transition, how would it potentially influence South Africa’s four remaining Super Rugby franchises?
There can be no denying the European money wins over all others in terms of the world’s domestic rugby competitions, although the English Premiership and French Top 14 are way more lucrative than the Pro12.
But the Stormers, Sharks, Bulls and Lions will no doubt be intrigued to witness how their compatriots fare. Logistics and financials will be imperative, but player welfare will be paramount.
There’s already been speculation that the Cheetahs and Southern Kings will play some of their home games at Saracens’ home ground in North London to reduce travel, although the current Super Rugby travel schedule has become pretty brutal with the addition of Argentina’s Jaguraes and Japan’s Sunwolves.
As a guide, the plane trip from Johannesburg to Wellington is almost 19 hours. Johannesburg to Cardiff is 14 hours.
Super Rugby’s current broadcast deal expires in 2020. If the Cheetahs and Kings are chugging along nicely in the Pro14, what’s not to say the other four South African teams won’t be lured north by the pound or euro?
And if all four go, perhaps 2021 might be when the Australian team that’s axed soon – the Melbourne Rebels or Western Force – are reintroduced into Super Rugby.
World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont said only a few days ago that they would love to see a Pacific Islands team in Super Rugby to stop the player drain from Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. Maybe 2021 is also a feasible entry date for such a side.
It feels like there’s more upheaval ahead for Super Rugby over the next few years. Following many phases of expansion since SANZAAR’s initial Super 12 in 1996, the upcoming contraction might cause a significant shift further down the track.
Will South Africa’s rugby eyes look north to Europe more and more? Or has South Africa’s 20-odd-year history in Super Rugby enough to have them bolted on to the southern hemisphere competition?