Challenges abound for Cheetahs, Southern Kings in PRO14

Uzair Cassiem of the Free State Cheetahs takes the lineout ball during a Currie Cup match Chris Ricco/BackpagePix

South Africa's Free State Cheetahs and Southern Kings are preparing for the start of a new chapter in their history when they enter the Celtic League's PRO14 competition, but it is a step forward that is fraught with challenges for both sides.

The pair, who have been axed from Super Rugby for 2018, have been added to the European competition that features teams from Ireland, Italy, Wales and Scotland, and will debut on the weekend of September 1-3.

But for the Cheetahs especially it will be a turbulent time as they juggle commitments in their South African Currie Cup Premier Division campaign, where they are defending champions, with PRO14 duties.

There are six weekends where fixtures will overlap, meaning they must put out two separate teams, with two sets of coaching and medical staff, in two different venues, on occasion over 10,000 kilometres apart.

The Cheetahs on Monday announced how they will split the duties, under the watchful gaze of director of rugby Franco Smith.

Rory Duncan will be head coach of the PRO14 team, along with Corniel van Zyl (forwards coach), Dave Williams (backline coach) and Charl Strydom (defence coach).

The Currie Cup side will be led by head coach Daan Human, along with MJ Smith (backline coach) and Albert Keuris (skills coach) as part of his technical team.

It is anticipated that in future years there will be no clashes of matches though.

Van Zyl says the coaching teams have confidence in all players to perform, and that they have been planning for some time how they can best utlilise their squad.

"We believe as coaches that anybody who puts on the jersey will perform," he told reporters at the PRO14 launch in Cape Town.

"There has been a lot of planning already to ensure we can field the best teams for whatever game we are playing.

"We are just going to take it week by week, if you look at it int he long-term, it won't be until the middle of November that we will have a break. And we are coming off Super Rugby as well."

The Cheetahs debut in the competition against Irish sides Ulster (September 1) and Munster (September 9), and those same weekends have what could be crucial Currie Cup fixtures against the Sharks in Durban and Western Province in Cape Town respectively.

But Van Zyl adds that the fact that his side have been in action since the start of the year in Super Rugby and now the Currie Cup means they have some form and momentum, while PRO14 teams are still only in the pre-season stage.

"They are doing pre-season now and we are on a bit from that, so that will help us, it will give us some momentum to take into the PRO14," he says.

Adjusting to the conditions in the Northern Hemisphere will be a challenge, especially given that the Cheetahs are renowned for their desire to play attacking, ball-in-hand rugby.

Van Zyl admits adjusting their game-plan will be among their biggest challenges.

"It's a big thing, the approach will be to try and do the stuff we have done in the past few seasons, that won't change, but we will look at the conditions on the day and go a little bit more conservative. But we don't really want to change," he said.

The Southern Kings do not have the same challenges with regards the Currie Cup, but rather have lost a number of their key players since the end of the Super Rugby campaign, including wing Makazole Mapimpi to the Cheetahs.

For the Port Elizabeth-based side, holding on to their top talent has always been a challenge and head coach Deon Davids is under no illusions that it will continue to be so.

Despite this, he says the PRO14 provides the opportunity to blood new players for the team in what will at times be very diffierent conditions to what they are used to.

"It's a fantastic competition to be part of and a fantastic opportunity for the franchise in the Eastern Cape to give those players an opportunity to play with some of the best in the world," Davids says.

"It's going to be tough losing all those players and building a new core. But we are in a good space now in terms of the players that we have identified.

"Looking at how we can grow as a team and a franchise, that's an exciting part, to see the big picture. I feel eventually we will get there and be able to field a good team.

"But rugby is built on continuity and building combinations, and it takes a year to get to where everybody understands each other and to build momentum.

"We have lost that now, that whole process must start again, but we are in it now, we must just find a recipe to keep it as simple as possible, to create a good culture and get everybody working in the same direction."

Davids says that where possible they will try to tie players down to longer contracts in the future, but adds having a thriving academy system will help no end.

"You want to contract players for two years to have something to build on, but it's not so easy in all the positions and with different competitions happening at the same time.

"You need to build a good sustainable base, with an academy structure that feeds into your professional team. That needs to become a focus-point going forward."

Davids is still searching for players to bring in from other franchises to boost his depth and says teams have been receptive to their plight.

"I have had a lot of support in terms of looking at the different franchises to get players in," he added.

"If everybody understands the importance of growing the game in South Africa and making our mark internationally, whatever decisions we make and whatever we do, needs to feed into ensuring that the teams that play in the different competitions are able to compete and give enough exposure to the best players."

The Sharks have loaned the Kings loose-forward Khaya Majola, scrumhalf Rowan Gouws, utility back S'bura Sithole and hooker Stephan Coetzee, while the Bulls have sent props Martin Dreyer and Njabulo Gumede, hooker Alandre van Rooyen and lock Freddy Ngoza to Port Elizabeth as well.