The PRO Rugby dream is over for the Toyota Cheetahs after months of speculation which suggested that the central franchise would have to make way for the Super Rugby teams in Europe.
The death blow was dealt to the Cheetahs on Tuesday during SA Rugby’s special general council meeting, in which the member unions voted in favour of having four South African teams participating in Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.
In 2017, the Cheetahs as well as the Southern Kings and the Western Force from Perth in Australia, were shown the door from the Super Rugby as SANZAAR opted to reduce the number of teams from 18 to 15, in an attempt to revive the competition which was dying a slow death.
This prompted the Cheetahs to seek an alternative competition to compete in, and once they had identified the then PRO12, they approached the Kings and got the ball rolling to be the ground-breakers in not just South African rugby, but world rugby as well, by becoming the first teams from the south to play in Europe.
Earlier this year it was even suggested by SA Rugby that they would be reducing their number of franchises in South Africa from eight to just four. However, the Kings went into voluntary liquidation in September, and this played a big part in the Cheetahs managing to secure their franchise status, which does mean more money, but without an international competition to play in, the finances will remain an issue. Even the Griquas in the Northern Cape and Pumas in Mpumalanga can feel aggrieved by the decision, which many feel was not a rugby decision.
The Free State has long been regarded as the hotbed of talent in South African rugby. The removal of the Cheetahs from PRO Rugby will have far-reaching effects on generating talent in the region. This was seen in 2017 with the schools in the region and the tertiary institutions battling to attract more talent. While the rugby factory, Grey College, has managed to remain unbeaten since 2017, the University of the Free State has battled in big-name signings and attracting the interest of players from the famous school.
The Cheetahs and SA Rugby have indicated that they will have an opportunity to play rugby internationally. This is in the form of the suggested Super 8 series, which is expected to feature teams from Australia and New Zealand. There has been no official word that such a competition will indeed be started, and a key phrase in the SA Rugby statement on the matter indicated that the entry cost must be neutral.
Another big concern for the Cheetahs is whether or not that will be able to afford to hold onto their big-name signings. In recent years, the Cheetahs managed to lure players such as Ruan Pienaar and Francois Steyn back to the City of Roses, while they have also been able to extend the contracts of star performers such as Junior Pokomela. It would come as no surprise if these players decide to opt-out of their contracts in order to seek opportunities elsewhere.
While this is most certainly a bitter pill to swallow for the defending Currie Cup champions and their supporters, it may be a very good opportunity to pick themselves up and rebuild.
There is a Super Rugby Unlocked competition kicking off in just over a week from now, which will feature all of the top teams in the country as well as the Cheetahs, Griquas and Pumas. This will transition into the Currie Cup as of the second round. It will be a valuable opportunity for the team from Bloemfontein to set the record straight.
A new domestic format was also posed during the SA Rugby meeting, which will also provide for some intriguing rugby.
The supporters can also play their part in attending the matches once the go-ahead has been given for spectators to attended matches again. – MORGAN PIEK