The first season of the United Rugby Championship is coming to a close and whilst it may have been a slow start, it has turned into a true master piece. Three SA franchises are set to take part in the play-offs in their debut season, whilst the Lions find themselves towards the bottom of the log, where to from here?
The Cheetahs and Southern Kings were excluded from Super Rugby and joined the then named, Pro14 in 2017. The Free State side played in the North from 2017 until 2020 when the world came to a halt. When the 4 sides who had been plying their trade in Super Rugby suddenly found themselves without competition, it was the Cheetahs who would suffer most. They were pulled from participating in the PRO14 and the tournament was revamped to what we now know as the URC, with the 4 Super Rugby teams joining in their place.
It is now two years later and the Cheetahs are still without a tournament to participate in. Whilst the Toyota Challenge may offer them some form of international competition exposure, it is hardly justice for a side so steeped in tradition and with such a proud and supportive fan base. At RPT we have been big supporters of the Cheetahs in the past and we truly feel that they deserve better from the administrators at SARU. They are currently undefeated in the Currie Cup and will likely top the log at the conclusion of this weekends fixtures, all with a game in hand. They have some quality players on their books and they have established a strong team culture. Can the same be said of the Lions?
It was only a few weeks ago that Cheetahs head coach, Hawies Fourie indicated that his side may have a way of re-entering through the back door as it where, via a 2nd tier URC 'B' Shield competition. This got many a punt-it excited at the prospects of the Cheetahs climbing their way back to the top and joining the other 4 SA franchises in the URC via a promotion relegation style system. I mean the Cheetahs would surely be touted to topple the low lying Zebre, who managed only 1 win this season.
This notion was quickly binned by the URC CEO, Martin Anayi however who confirmed their focus is firmly on the URC and ensuring the product grows in quality and viewership. So where does this leave the Cheetahs?
“We have contracts with each of our teams. It’s a closed league, effectively. It’s there to make sure those teams can be sustainable and invest in getting better without the fear of being relegated to an unknown competition. It’s a little bit different to the situation in France and England. There isn’t an established division below us. There’s nowhere to go for those teams to be relegated.”
The Cats were a team that took part in Super12 between 1998 and 2005 and were comprised primarily of players from both the Lions and Cheetahs, whilst also drawing on players from the likes of the Pumas and Leopards to bolster their playing stocks. This was a team that mustered up some impressive victories such as a 56 - 21 win over the Highlanders. The team was however disbanded in 2006 when Super12 expanded to Super14.
The Lions have had a torrid time in the URC thus far and currently lay in 11th on the log with 7 wins from 17 games (41% win rate). They were definitely much improved during their run of home games but that doesn't gloss over where they currently are on the log. They are suffering a similar, if not worse fate in the Currie Cup.
If the Cheetahs are without competition and the Lions are struggling with their squad, surely there is an obvious solution? The re-establishment of the Cats could solve a big SARU head ache. It would allow the Cheetahs top tier players to play in a premier competition whilst keeping them on their books for the domestic competitions such as the Currie Cup. On the other hand it would allow the Lions to bolster their squad, with a minimal impact on their budget. I mean who wouldn't want to see the big Frans Steyn filling in for departing Lions center, Burger Odendaal for example.
I truly believe that this solution could lead to all four SA franchises appearing in the play-off stages of the competition, serving to grow the game in SA even further, so SARU, what are you waiting for?