Cheetahs braced for northern exposure on PRO14 debut

Cheetahs braced for northern exposure on PRO14 debut

Ulster’s first ever taste of what was initially labelled Celtic League rugby came in the guise of a 30-13 win over Swansea - the Ospreys were still a figment of the imagination way back then - in front of 6,000 punters in Belfast, writes Brendan O’Brien.

It’s only been 16 years but it seems like a lifetime. Kingspan Stadium was still the beloved but battered old Ravenhill at the time and the Welsh side’s out-half that day was a promising teenager by the name of Gavin Henson.

On Friday, the northern province will kick off its latest league campaign in a tournament now known as the Guinness PRO14 and the visitors to their state-of-the-art 18,000-capacity ground will have travelled all of 14,000 kilometres for the pleasure of playing.

How far we have all come, eh?

For the Cheetahs - and the Southern Kings who start their season the day after away to champions Scarlets - the culture shock will be enormous as they leave behind Super Rugby with its engagements in Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Auckland and Tokyo.

“Firstly, the guys are excited to travel up here,” says captain Niell Jordaan. “The thing that we have to consider is that when it's summer in South Africa it's winter here and I hear that the winter is quite tough in the north.

“The altitude will be hard for them, the winters are going to be tough for us. The guys are excited and any challenges that they're might be we'll figure it out as we go. It's more excitement than anything else that is brewing in Bloemfontein.”

For years the joke among the Irish press corps has been that southern hemisphere players knew nothing about their northern counterparts. Every November, the Boks or All Blacks would visit and struggle to name names when asked about Irish players they feared.

When Brian O’Driscoll retired they were lost altogether.

Jordaan didn’t differ much from that when asked about some of the teams they would be facing, managing just the Scarlets before branching off into an observation about how many South African players were already playing with their new European bedfellows.

Head coach Rory Duncan was flat up honest there. The Cheetahs aren’t long off a five-month Super Rugby season and they are still immersed in the domestic Currie Cup so he hasn’t exactly been burning the midnight oil over Ulster until this week.

“You know what a braai is in South Africa? he asks with a smile on his face. “Normally I watched (what was the Guinness PRO12) with a steak on the fire and a beer in my hand. That's going to change going forward.”

Duncan won’t be chilling over any barbecues for a while.

By the time the PRO14 ends late next spring the Cheetahs’ season will have stretched toward the 15-month mark.

“In terms of player management and player welfare, we've been giving the players time off during Super Rugby,” Duncan explains. “We've also rotated during the Currie Cup, every week playing a different team.

“Really it's a challenge up until November but we have to take into account that we don't play in the European competitions, so we have those weekend built in. We don't play from the 2nd of December to the sixth of January, that's an extended break.

“When we come back then, it's on for two week, off for two weeks. That sort of thing. During that time, the guys will be hungry for rugby, I think.”

Still, it makes for a major logistical headache.

After Belfast the Cheetahs will move on to Limerick where they will face Munster the following week but they will also have a side facing Western province in the Currie Cup back home the very same day.

Duncan has brought in number of players on loan from other South African franchises to cope with the workload but the two competitions will throw up two very different styles of rugby and weather conditions and future signings will reflect that.

Add to that, too, the absence of all four of their players called away for Springbok duties in the Rugby Championship - captain Francois Venter, Raymond Rhule, Oupa Mahoje and Uzair Cassiem - and Duncan’s task begins to veer towards thankless in the short-term.

“When our team is at full strength, I'm confident that we can put together a team that is going to compete,” says Duncan.

“We will be starting the competition with a few niggles from the back end of Super Rugby and the start of the Currie Cup, but I'm confident. This is an opportunity to compare our strength with the northern hemisphere and this is what our supporters have been asking for.”

For all the complications involved, there is a clear sense that the coaches and players are happy to be done with the monster haul flights to New Zealand, Argentina and Japan and there will be no more 11-hour time differences to cope with either.

The hope is that this is just the first step in another, more rewarding journey that ends with other South African sides flipping over the equator and it seems inevitable that the new arrivals will be welcomed into the Champions Cup some day, too.

“I don't want to speak on behalf of other franchises,” Duncan says. “The other South African teams I think are watching and I should imagine they'll have the intention of entering into a competition going forward.”

It’s a move that has divided opinion but the entry of the two South African sides has certainly generated a buzz around a competition that will not have to contend with much in the way of counter attractions this season.

There is no Ireland game in Chicago - the November internationals schedule is underwhelming overall - and there is no World Cup or Lions tour next summer to soak up all the attention. The stage is there’s, for now.

“This is one of the biggest opportunities that South African rugby has ever had,” says Jordaan. “To be one of the first South African ambassadors for this competition is a huge privilege. We want to contribute to the high standard of rugby that's already been established in the PRO14.

“When we heard we were axed from Super Rugby, there was a lot of doubt about the guys' future. For two weeks or so, we didn't really know. It was tough for the union to retain players. Guys were going crazy phoning agents, saying they wanted to leave.

“Luckily Rory came in and said there was the PRO14 opportunity. That really settled everyone down to stick around and wait this thing out. We all know that this is a great opportunity. A lot of the guys decided to stay and give that reassurance for the next few years.”

Off into the unknown they go.

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