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14 Jul 2017 00:00
Fan-tastic: The Cheetahs are the Currie Cup defending champions and the game against the Sharks is likely to see them field the strongest possible side. (Johan Pretorius/Gallo Images)
Oh, the delicious irony! The first fixture of the final round of log play in Super Rugby in this country will be the Kings against the Cheetahs.
The two teams that have been deselected for next year’s competition will meet in Port Elizabeth on Friday night. Neither can qualify for the quarterfinals and many players from both sides will head off overseas at the weekend.
In these rather strange circumstances, it could be a classic.
One can only speculate on the politicking that went on behind the scenes before last Friday’s announcement by the South African Rugby Union (Saru).
It is no secret that there is only one international competition that has rolled out the welcome mat for the South African sides, and that is the Pro12. The Cheetahs and Kings will join the tournament formerly known as the Celtic League, alongside teams from Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Italy.
As always, the devil is in the detail, which probably explains Saru’s rather coy statement. The point is, the new Northern Hemisphere season begins in September, less than two months hence.
To compete in the re-titled Pro14, the Cheetahs and Kings would need to rapidly conclude deals with their players. These are the same players who, sensing the need to prepare for life beyond Super Rugby, went ahead and contracted themselves far and wide.
It gets even more complex when you realise that the entire Kings squad is not currently contracted by the franchise, but directly with Saru. The deal was done so that the Kings would be able to fulfil their commitments in this year’s Super Rugby and, essentially, it means that from 9pm on Friday night the players become free agents.
So the team that has become South Africa’s feel-good story, with six wins to its name in log play and a crowd-pleasing playing style, will not be the one that plays in the Pro14. Far from it. Similarly, the Cheetahs have become accustomed to losing the bulk of their side at the end of Super Rugby, as players head off to Japan and Europe.
What it means in reality is that to be ready to play Pro14 in September the Kings and Cheetahs will have to campaign with their Currie Cup sides. This leads to the question: How will they fulfil their commitments in the Currie Cup?
It is not such a problem for the Kings, who have been relegated to the first division this year, but the Cheetahs are the premier division defending champions, opening their campaign against the Sharks in Bloemfontein next Friday.
We may have the unlikely spectacle of the Cheetahs picking their strongest available side for the first six weeks of the Currie Cup to hit the ground running in Europe in September, and then reverting to a mixture of age group and Varsity Cup players in the run into the knockout stages. It sounds messy, but somehow it will get done, and in the long run it will be seen as paving the way for a realignment of the game as the much-discussed global season becomes a reality.
The likelihood is that the next World Cup, scheduled for Japan in 2019, will mark the end of rugby life as we know it. Just as the 1995 World Cup in South Africa marks the end of the amateur era, the Japan World Cup will usher in the global season, with all manner of changes to the current model.
One of those changes will be the scrapping of Super Rugby, a once-great competition that lost the plot. It will be replaced by a global provincial competition, open to the elite teams of both hemispheres. The Pro14 will become a feeder league for this, with promotion and relegation between the two.
For now, things remain as they are and there is much to relish in the final weekend of log play. We can expect a try fest in Port Elizabeth, with the teams eager to show the administrators what they’ll be missing next year.
Then, on Saturday, the Bulls host the Stormers at Loftus and the Lions travel to Durban to take on the Sharks.
The way the competition has panned out means that all eight of the quarterfinalists are already known, but results will determine who plays whom, and where.
The key fixture is actually on Saturday in Wellington, where the Hurricanes host the unbeaten Crusaders.
If the home side wins, it will open the door for the Lions to top the overall log, assuming they beat the Sharks.
Given the long break for both Kiwi sides while the British and Irish Lions tour was on, it is impossible to predict what might happen.
All other things being equal, however, a win for the Crusaders would almost certainly point the way to a second successive season of final heartbreak for the Lions.
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