Earlier this week it was widely reported that a deal had been struck by Celtic Rugby, the owners of the Guinness Pro12, and South African provinces Southern Kings and The Cheetahs, meaning the South African teams would join the Pro12 in an expanded cross-continental competition.
The writing had been on the wall for some time following the announcement that the teams were to be cut from Super Rugby after complaints from broadcasters that the competition structure had become too complex. Commercially it makes sense for the existing teams in the Pro12 as it provides a much needed financial boost to the league, reportedly £500,000 per team, to close the huge financial gap between them and the teams competing in the Aviva Premiership and France’s Top 14. It also provides interest in a league that many consider to have become stale.
If you believe the media we are likely to see a change in the league structure, with the formation of two conferences each containing seven teams, and no more than two teams from a single country. The teams in each conference will play one another on a home and away basis, and will also face each of the seven teams in the other conference once, providing a 19 game regular season. There are also rumours circulating that derby games will be safeguarded to bring the total number of games to 21 before the play-offs. Reports suggest that the team that finishes top of each conference will qualify for a home semi-final whilst teams finishing second and third in each conference will play-off to make up the other semi-final places. Punters should keep a close eye on this before placing bets, as the make-up of the fixtures could have a fundamental impact on the final season standings. Whatever the structure of the league, the question everyone will be asking is whether the South African teams can mount a serious challenge?
The (Toyota) Cheetahs encompass the Western Half of the Free State Province of South Africa, playing their home matches at the 48,000 capacity Vodacom stadium. They entered Super Rugby in 2006 after South Africa were granted a licence for a 5th team in the competition, but they have struggled to really make a mark.
Since their inclusion in the competition they have finished in 10th place or lower in the overall standings in all but one of the seasons; 2013 when they finished the season in 6th place. In fact, the Cheetahs have failed to win more than half of their games in every season but 2013.
Last season they finished seventh out of eight in the South African group with only Japan’s Sunwolves below them, thought they did manage to finish the season with a victory over the Southern Kings.
The Southern Kings were formed in 2009 to provide opposition to the touring British and Irish Lions. Representing the Eastern Cape of South Africa, it wasn’t until 2013 that the team were permitted entry into the Super Rugby competition. The Southern Kings finished bottom of the South African conference that season and subsequently lost a relegation play-off with the Lions, not returning to Super Rugby until 2016, a season in which they only managed two victories.
Last season the Southern Kings fared better, managing 6 wins from their 15 games, but they still finished bottom of the South African II conference.
So will they compete and should I bet on them?
It’s fair to say that both the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings are two of the weaker teams in Super Rugby, but fans will argue that Super Rugby is a much stronger competition than the Pro12, and it’s hard to disagree.
Regardless of the strength of either team it is going to be difficult for them to mount a serious challenge in the newly formed Pro14 in their first season. They are joining the league at the end of a rigorous Super Rugby season with an almost non-existent off season, this will take its toll, particularly as the season draws to a close. It has been suggested however that a condition of both teams joining the league is a commitment to strengthen their respective squads.
Whilst both teams will undoubtedly be strong at home, it is likely that they will need to play their away games in blocks of four, meaning that the squads will essentially be on tour in the UK for a month at a time. They will be away from their families, sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings and training in unfamiliar facilities, this will make life difficult for them. Then there’s the weather; the Cheetahs in particular are renowned for playing a fast and free-flowing style of rugby, but this often isn’t possible in the wetter weather of the Northern Hemisphere, where a slower and more physical style of play is preferred. The South African teams will need to adapt quickly if they are going to succeed.
As an official announcement has yet to be made by Celtic Rugby on the inclusion of the South African teams in the Pro12, odds of them being crowned champions have yet to be released. Looking at the odds that are available for the existing teams competing in the league I would suggest that each team will be offered with odds of around 20-1 or 25-1. Both the Cheetahs and Southern Kings have plenty of talented players within their squads, but they don’t possess the depth of the likes of Leinster, Munster, Glasgow, Scarlets and the Ospreys. They will both win the majority of their home games, but will struggle away from home. I wouldn’t bet on them being crowned champions this season but would consider an outside bet on the Southern Kings making the play-offs if the odds available are attractive enough, 12-1 or greater. They showed that they know how to play with some impressive wins after a slow start to the season.