The Pro 14 has finally arrived and with it come two new teams based in South Africa. What does the coming season hold in terms of fixtures for the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings?
First half of the season: September to December
The first block of 5 fixtures will provide a big challenge for the new boys. With Currie Cup and The Rugby Championship fixtures stretching their resources the opening 2 rounds might be seen as more of an opportunity to test the waters than target wins. Once they get back home though things start to get more serious. Zebre have to be comfortably dispatched if the Cheetahs and Kings are to have any credibility while the arrival of Leinster as the other part of the double header will be the first real chance to see what impact playing in South Africa has on the European sides.
The Cheetahs will then get to chance to take advantage of an extended home run, including a Glasgow side who may have their eyes on the following week’s Champions Cup fixture, while the Kings have a good opportunity to make a statement on the road against perennial basement dwellers Dragons and Treviso (although they should be wary of some decent recruitment by the Italians including the belated capture of Marty Banks from the Highlanders).
Block 2 is on the road for the Cheetahs. Again Zebre has to be dealt with confidently, before giving themselves a week to acclimatise (if that’s even possible) to the rugged conditions in Connacht. The Kings will have a tough trip to Glasgow but a home tie against Ulster might provide some joy. Traditionally the week before the Autumn internationals kick off would see Test players rested anyway – that’s even more likely to be the case this year as Joe Schmidt is unlikely to want players in his squad flying back from South Africa and not having a full week to prepare for Ireland’s game against…well, South Africa.
Block 3 is home comforts all the way and another double header. This time round it will be Edinburgh and reigning champions the Scarlets. Both these sides will almost certainly travel without any of their internationals due to clashes with the Test match window (and the add-on fixture against South Africa in Wales’ case). The Cheetahs and Kings have to be really gunning for 2 wins each here.
A 4 week break over the festive period will be a welcome relief for players who started the Super Rugby season in February and a great chance to clear niggling injuries and get some freshness back in the squad.
Second half of the season: January to April (& beyond?)
The two provinces start back up again with the kind of away fixtures that need to be targeted if they harbour serious ambitions of making the playoffs. The double header of derbies will then firmly establish the pecking order (and bragging rights) among the 2 South African sides.
The 5th block of matches fall during the Six Nations and will be a tough test for the Cheetahs and Kings. They’ll play 3 games each in the UK and Ireland and will likely be away from home for the best part of a month. There are no easy fixtures in this spell but Glasgow, Leinster and the Ospreys have traditionally been the sides hardest hit by international call-ups and all have lower winning percentages during Test windows.
The last game in this group of matches sees both South African teams at home and, in fact, of their last 10 games combined only one (the Cheetahs eminently winnable trip to the Dragons) will not be played on their own turf. The aim has to be for all the matches in this last run-in to the playoffs have to be victories – home form will be the foundation of the 2 teams’ success (or otherwise) – with the games against Munster likely to be the most challenging.
The last derby match could have all or nothing riding on it for the provinces. The side that adapts quickest to their new opponents will prosper. The first couple of rounds will be a shock to the system but after that the fixture scheduling gods have been relatively benevolent towards the competition’s new teams.
The Kings in particular look to have the chance to build some momentum, see what they can take from their toughest away run during the Six Nations (against weakened sides) before finishing with 5 straight home games. The strength of their squad remains to be confirmed but having beaten the likes of the Sharks, the Bulls and
Argentina the Jaguares during 2017 and with that favourable fixture list do odds of 25/1 look like slightly generous for the side from Port Elizabeth? They may not win the Pro 14 but they could have the potential for a good run at the playoffs.