The moment of truth has arrived. On Friday night, the Cheetahs will play Ulster in Belfast in the opening match of the new Pro14 competition. A squad of 28 players has set up camp in Ireland ahead of the game, with the Cheetahs’ second match being against Munster in Limerick next week.
Meanwhile, back in South Africa, the Free State Cheetahs will continue their quest to defend the Currie Cup title they won last season. At the halfway point in this year’s tournament, they are in first place on the log and begin the second round against the Sharks in Durban on Saturday.
On the same day, the two Free Staters who are part of the Springbok squad will fly to Australia to begin preparations for next Saturday’s Test against Australia in Perth. They are Raymond Rhule and Uzair Cassiem. Francois Venter was released back to his province after the Tests against Argentina.
Now factor in the five players who left Bloemfontein at the end of the Super Rugby season. Put them together with the three tranches mentioned above and you get 66 players. Take some time out to let that settle in: 66. The logistics alone could turn an accountants’ knees to jelly. Flights, hotels, food and the really big one — remuneration.
It must have been tempting for the Free State Rugby Union to equivocate. Don’t send all your best players to Ireland; leave a few at home to guide the youngsters through the undoubtedly rough times ahead. But that shrill, small voice of reason will have been shouted down by those who argue, quite rightly, that making a good impression in the opening rounds of the Pro14 is more important than pragmatism.
And anyway, the South African rugby public has already voted with its feet in this year’s Currie Cup. They have stayed away in their droves. It is therefore entirely understandable that Free State feel justified in sending a team of students, under-21s and strays to Durban this week. Oh, how the mighty provincial competition has fallen.
In the circumstances, it behoves the Cheetahs team playing in Belfast to hit the ground running. It is fair to say that they enter the Pro14 with momentum, having played a full season of rugby in this country already. A few warm-up games notwithstanding, Ulster have been idle since May, although several of their players were involved in the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand.
The downside for the Cheetahs is fatigue. There is a better-than-even chance that conditions will be cold and soft, completely the opposite of what their players have become used to in Bloemfontein.
They will face opponents entirely at home with games that move inexorably from one set piece to the next, where broken play is a rarity rather than the norm, and where kicking for territory means finding touch rather than a deep-lying player happy to run the ball back. In short, it will require the Cheetahs to play an entirely new brand of rugby.
It would not be at all surprising to see them struggle against a streetwise and well-balanced Ulster side. The crucial thing will be to take it on the chin and move forward, because this is the shape of things to come. Super Rugby is on the skids and it will not be long before the Cheetahs and the Kings are joined by the rest of South Africa’s elite unions to compete in the northern hemisphere.
The Kings also begin their Pro14 adventure away from home, taking on the Scarlets in Llanelli, Wales, on Saturday evening. In many ways it is an even greater leap of faith for the side from the Eastern Cape, as they have had to assemble a squad from scratch in the six weeks since the invitation was extended to move north.
The Kings players who did duty for the Super Rugby season were contracted directly by the South African Rugby Union (Saru). Some signed elsewhere: Tyler Paul, Ross Geldenhuys and Louis Schreuder moved up the coast to the Sharks, and squad captain Lionel Cronjé is now with Toyota Verblitz in Japan. Makazole Mapimpi will be playing in the Pro14, but for the Cheetahs.
A few stalwarts remain in the Kings line-up, however, including dynamic eighth man Andisa Ntsila and centre Luzuko Vulindlu. They also have South Africa U-20 winger Yaw Penxe, who looks like a Springbok in the making. Undeniably, however, the squad is raw in comparison with that of the Cheetahs.
We will know a lot more about how each side will fare at the end of September, after they have hosted a few home games. Lose those, and questions will be asked. Win them, and the future of the game in this country will become a lot clearer.