A gentle whisper was heard shortly after the Cheetahs and Kings joined the Pro14 in 2017 — one of South Africa’s biggest rugby franchises was considering a move north.
It has since grown into a resounding ululation that each of the Stormers, Bulls and Sharks have expressed a keen desire to ditch Super Rugby in favour of the soon-to-be-expanded Pro14.
And it makes sense too.
It’s estimated that the inclusion of the Cheetahs and Kings — due largely to the TV deal with SuperSport — brings in £6-million (more than R115-million) per season, and there’s always the prospect of sponsorship deals also being paid in the significantly more valuable English currency.
The Cheetahs and Kings also no longer have to traverse 18 time zones to play one game in South America, another in Asia and a handful in Oceania, all the while battling to overcome jetlag before kick-off.
And then there’s the opportunity to actually win silverware, something no South African team has done in Super Rugby since 2010. While the Pro14 boasts formidable names such as Leinster, Munster and Scarlets, none of those teams hail from places named Christchurch, Hamilton, Dunedin or Wellington.
The Cheetahs were able to qualify for the playoffs in their first season despite only achieving the same feat just once in 11 seasons of Super Rugby.
Finally, there’s the reality that the name ‘Super Rugby’ belies the product it is selling. Once the premier rugby tournament (outside of Test rugby) on the planet, the heady days of the Super 12 are a distant memory. The news that the competition will revert back to a 14-team, round-robin format for the first time since 2010 is encouraging, but whether it can rediscover what made it truly ‘super’ remains to be seen.
At least one of the current SA franchises will be making the switch after the conclusion of the 2020 season. And if that’s the case, the question changes from ‘why?’ to ‘who?’
The Bulls, to my mind, shouldn’t be going anywhere. As South Africa’s most successful Super Rugby franchise and the second-most successful team in the tournament’s history (their three-time champions tag is only outdone by the Crusader’s whopping nine), the Pretoria-based outfit should stay put.
And if the Bulls are staying, then so too should their arch-rivals, the Stormers. The North-South derby is at the heart of what makes South African rugby so intensely fierce. It’s a tradition that stretches back to the birth of the sport in this country and the integrity of the famous battle should remain intact.
This leaves us with the Lions and Sharks: two teams that, collectively, have featured in seven Super Rugby finals but have never managed to clinch the trophy.
If SA Rugby is to send a third team into the Pro14, it needs to be the team that can do the best job of representing the country up north by coming home with a trophy to show for their efforts. The Lions’ fast-paced, run-from-everywhere style of play is better suited to the hard, dry surfaces of the Southern Hemisphere.
The Durban-based Sharks, on the other hand, with their traditional reliance on a powerful, dominant pack and an emphasis on set-pieces and strong ball-carriers are far more suited to the wet, heavy pitches of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
It’s also believed that the Sharks have the biggest global fan base of all the South African franchises, with a particularly large number of supporters now living in the UK. Which is to say, based on some of their most recent Super Rugby outings, the Sharks may even find more black-and-white jerseys in Irish stadiums than they currently do at their beloved Kings Park.
It wouldn’t be an easy move. Sharks fans will have to accept that, despite coming close on four occasions, they will never see the Super Rugby trophy in Durban. But the team that is the best fit for the Pro14 must go, and a trophy is still a trophy, regardless of the hemisphere it’s won in.
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Follow Joshua on Twitter: @BalcombBrown