Pro14 – survival of the fittest

 

Deon Davids, who is expected to be crowned as the Southern Kings coach, will be facing new challenges in Europe
Picture: Getty Images

It will be a case of the survival of the fittest for the hastily assembled Southern Kings over the next couple of months in a revamped European Pro14 tournament.

Player welfare, during a gruelling tournament of travel and weather extremes, will be of paramount importance for the Port Elizabeth franchise.

In the new competition, the Kings will find themselves playing in hot summer South African conditions one day, and in muddy, freezing European winter conditions the next.

It is something that Deon Davids, expected to be crowned as the Kings coach, is well aware of as he faces the biggest challenge of his career.

Though the Kings are used to travelling vast distances to play Super Rugby matches in Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Singapore, they will still be clocking up plenty more air miles.

There will be a round trip of more than 20 000km for most Kings matches in Europe and officials will face a challenge keeping players fresh and fit.

The Kings will kick off their Pro14 campaign on September 2 against defending champions Scarlets in Wales.

The jam-packed fixture list will see 11 matches played in Port Elizabeth during a 21-match fixture list which stretches from next month until the end of April.

Springbok coach Allister Coetzee warned this week that South African players must develop a new mindset to confront differing challenges in Europe.

“People are very sceptical about change and that is normal. The Kings have done well in Super Rugby, so you would have loved them to have continued for another season,” Coetzee said.

“But here is another great opportunity in a different competition, which in my view, will help players to improve in terms of their skill sets.

“Now there will be different challenges, such as playing two weeks at home in summer and two weeks away in winter. From dry to wet conditions, so you need to adapt your game and your skills sets.”

The addition of the Kings and Cheetahs means the championship will introduce a new conference format as a league format is not suited to a 14-team cross-border tournament.

In order to provide travelling teams to South Africa with the best possible preparation, some games will be fixed for Saturdays.

This will allow visiting teams to have a seven-day turnaround leading into these fixtures, including five “clean days” that do not involve any travel.

Flights between Europe and South Africa are overnight which will allow players to rest during the journey, while training facilities and accommodation venues are up to the standards expected in Super Rugby.

For teams who are scheduled to play twice in South Africa, the aim will be for them to play back-to-back games on a “mini-tour” in one round trip.

Pro14 chief executive Martin Anayi said: “Our clubs, players and coaches are already excited about the opportunity to play in South Africa in front of new crowds, new stadiums and take on these exciting new tests.

“From a logistical point of view, we know that travelling long distance will be nothing unusual to the South African sides, and indeed our core international players, but it is a new departure for our clubs.

“As such we have been in a dialogue with performance directors across all participating unions to ensure that player welfare is not compromised.

“We will work closely with travel partners to ensure that players are provided the best possible times and conditions when flying to and from South Africa to make sure their preparation is unaffected.”

World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont said: “Following consideration of Pro14’s submission, including strategic goals and evaluation of the global rugby benefits, the World Rugby executive was unanimous in approving expansion.

“This approval was granted under the proviso that key strategic conditions will be met.

“This includes the implementation of a detailed player welfare plan, which we are delighted Pro14 are fully committed to. We look forward to the beginning of an exciting new chapter in the competition’s history.” There is also hope that some European fans may be tempted to travel to South Africa to watch their teams in action.

In Super Rugby there was little or no away support for foreign teams when they played at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

One of the biggest positives of Pro14 to the South African Rugby Union is the proximity of the respective time zones.

Britain is just an hour ahead for much of the year, making watching games live on TV a more desirable proposition than those played in Australia or New Zealand.

Most of the cash being generated by the inclusion of the Kings and Cheetahs comes from TV revenue, so there is a big onus on the clubs to deliver a top-notch product.

One pitfall that could prevent teams fielding all their stars every week, is the unions’ control over their players, particularly in Ireland and Wales.

Though they have little more than three weeks before their opener, Kings chief operating officer Charl Crous said his team would hit the ground running on September 2.

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