On the eve of the Guinness Pro 14 tournament kick off, a season which sees the introduction of South African teams to the competition. Both the Cheetahs and Southern Kings will add to the product already on show and provide the Ireland, Scotland and Welsh sides will different questions to answer during the tournament. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the squad assembled from South Africa for the tournament.
The arrival of the Cheetahs is a superb coup for the tournament organizers. The Bloemfontein team have had struggles in Super Rugby but they enter this competition with new enthusiasm with the hope that the home support will come out and support the team and the competition.
Free State Stadium is an intimidating venue for visiting teams. The altitude above sea level effect will be evident in the second half of fixtures as the hosts start to wear down their opposition. Ireland saw this to full effect in their summer of South Africa; altitude is a factor in games and 1,395 meters above sea level will prove telling for opposition teams which is why I think the Cheetahs will be a serious contender in the competition this season.
The NH winter conditions also throws up an interesting scenario for the South African teams. The cold, wet weather dictates a more tighter, conservative game plan. The South African teams are used to playing in the wet but the biting cold conditions faced into the latter end of the year will be keenly noted.
The Cheetahs start the campaign with two road trip fixtures. The first game is against Ulster at Kingspan Stadium. With weather set fair, this promises to be an absolute belter of a contest. Both sides like to throw the ball around but Ulster must be careful on how expansive they want to be considering the talent at the Cheetahs disposal.
Head Coach Rory Duncan has an excellent squad to chose from. The standouts straightaway being Francois Venter and Oupa Mohoje who is an absolute powerhouse in the back row with his work at the breakdown and ball carrying ability. The Ulster fixture will be a good contest to see where the Cheetahs are. Neil Jordaan leads from the front, sets the example for others to follow. de Jager and de Toit are exciting ball carrying options. This side and squad will be competitive and Guinness Pro 14 established fans will get acquainted with this team for many years to come. I am eagerly looking forward to the Thomond Park fixture next weekend when the Cheetahs face Munster; will be in attendance and it will be interesting to see the team in the flesh.
Chances of winning the competition
It is a tough ask for any new debutante team in a competition but the Cheetahs have the squad depth to seriously challenge. Yes, there will be teething problems early in the season; travel linguistics and the cold damp NH winter weather conditions but this is a group of players who are adaptable and will enhance their overall team performance as the season wears on. They will be a serious opposition for all opposition in their own backyard and I think the Cheetahs will be in the playoff shakeup. It is an exciting team; they play the right style of rugby with physicality upfront and speed and pace in breakdown and back play. They are a team who will put bums on seats this season.
The Port Elizabeth outfit come into the season looking for emerging indigenous underage talent to form the backbone of this side for many years to come. The Southern Kings’ playing squad has also been boosted with the signing and arrival of a number of players, who take the squad to a total of 40. These include Southern Kings’ stars during the Vodacom Super Rugby campaign – Andisa Ntsila, Luzuko Vulindlu and Alshaun Bock – as well as Guinness PRO14-experienced players Dries van Schalkwyk and Rossouw de Klerk.
There has being backroom management movement during the off-season with Chumani Booi arriving into Deon Davids’ management team. Booi takes over as back line coach t following the departure of Vuyo Zangqa, who has taken up a coaching position in Germany, at the end of the 2017 Vodacom Super Rugby competition.
A tough start to the Guinness Pro 14 awaits the Southern Kings with Scarlets and Connacht in the first two weekends of the season. The Scarlets game looks like a fixture which could potentially turn ugly if the Southern Kings are not solid in the set piece department. The Connacht fixture may be a more accurate read of the side; the youthful squad will have ups and downs but it is hoped that they will adapt and improve as the season wears on.
Players will be looking to impress so that the South African Super Rugby teams could potentially sign them; the side to me looks like a team whose purpose is to provide opportunities to underage promising talent to get game time in order to get to the next level. Hopefully, with some early success; the team can attract a skeptical home support to shout on the team and support the tournament.
This will be a fascinating element with the introduction of the South African sides. How will the South African rugby fans receive this new tournament? Will they embrace the tournament as a brave step to potentially looking for other Super Rugby South African teams to join the league long term and perhaps European Cup competition. Hopefully the rugby fans in both South African cities will embrace the competition and add a different dimension to the tournament.
Chances of making the playoffs?
The chances of progression to the playoff rounds looks remote with the likes of Scarlets, Leinster and Ulster in the same conference. Three powerhouse teams who have solid settled squads. The aim will be to improve with each passing week with the objective of being in the shakeup come the end of the regular season. Tall order given the squad dynamics at this time; an encouraging start to Pro 14 season beckons but no playoffs.