Long-suffering Cheetahs fans (like myself) are used to their players being poached over the years. The Sharks famously snapped up Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, and I remember when Gurthro Steenkamp went bye-bye to the Bulls.
The trend has continued to grow – think Adriaan Strauss and Lood de Jager, and now Paul Schoeman (no one will love you at Loftus as much as we did, Tier!) – but after just one season in the Pro14, the exodus has been particularly biblical.
Eleven players (and the coach) have left – about half to Japan and half to Europe. No one can blame them. It’s a professional choice, not an emotional one. But two things are interesting.
The first is that playing in the Pro14 seems to have sent the talent scouts into much more of a frenzy than Super Rugby. Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that the Cheetahs have done better in then Pro14 than Super Rugby, but still.
The second is that the players that chose to go to Japan have made a bad decision. And that’s a first.
For so long now, the Cheetahs talent filing through International Departures at OR Tambo felt like they were being beamed up to greater things; finally, a good turn in their careers. Those who stuck around had to scramble to pack their bags for the Pro14 after a hurried process to include the Free State team in the 2017/18 season.
With a record of only once reaching the playoffs in 12 seasons of Super Rugby (during which time they finished 11 campaigns placed 10th or worse), the Cheetahs sprinted into the Pro14 quarter-finals in their debut season. The team’s immediate success makes those Cheetahs players who opted for the move north seem much wiser than those who went east. And I say that with great respect to the Japanese league.
The Pro14 is a tournament on the up and the inclusion of the Cheetahs and Kings has, generally, been well received by the fans and administrators.
If you log onto the Pro14 website, there’s a splash screen that throws a few statistics your way. Crowd attendance is up by 10%, a record number of tries (861) were scored, and the comp featured more international players than ever before – easily explained by the addition of two extra ‘international’ teams in the Cheetahs and Kings.
But there are two stats that are noteworthy. The first is that the tournament has the “fastest rucks in club rugby”, with 81% being under 3 seconds. And the other is that the 2017/18 Pro14 final had a record attendance of 46,092.
Perhaps the most telling fact, however, is that the tournament is set to expand even further to 16 teams. Too much? Is this a similar deadly expansion that led to the demise of Super Rugby? I don’t know.
But one thing is for sure: when the Cheetahs first joined the tournament, SA fans sneered that they would rather have their team play in a waning Super Rugby tournament than some low-tier competition in Europe. I wonder how many fans today would object to the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers joining the Pro14, especially with the inevitable chance to play in the European Champions Cup?
Yup, thought so.