JONNY GRAY will make his rugby comeback for Glasgow Warriors against Toyota Cheetahs tonight [Friday – kick-off: 7.35pm] after three months on the sidelines recovering from wrist surgery. And any interested rugby supporter living in Bloemfontein will only have to pay the equivalent of £1.22 [20 South African Rand] for an open stand ticket to see how he gets on. That is unless he or she is under-18 or a student, in which case they get in for free.
With such a give-away pricing structure, it is reasonable to assume that there are not that many rugby supporters living in Bloemfontein interested in seeing how the local pro team is getting on as one of the newest member sides in the Guinness PRO14.
Results on the field have been positive for the Cheetahs in recent weeks, with three wins gained from three consecutive home matches suggesting that the franchise is capable of more than just making up the numbers during their debut year. But, sadly, engagement levels off the park have not been quite so encouraging.
The official crowd figure for the Cheetahs’ first home match of their PRO14 era against Zebre was 13,982, when every ticket for the match was free. That number dropped to 6,980 when Leinster came calling the next week, and to 4,589 last Friday against the Ospreys, despite admission to both those games being free to anyone who purchased a ticket for the South Africa versus Australia Test match at the same venue last Saturday.
These deals were heralded as ‘the biggest rugby promotion ever’ by the match organisers, but the eerie emptiness inside the 46,000 seater Toyota Stadium suggests that it is going to take much more than some cut price ticketing to overcome a toxic cocktail of scepticism and ambivalence in the Free State towards the PRO14 experiment.
Crowd sizes for the Southern Kings, the other South African franchise to join the league this year, have been even less impressive, with a dubious official figure of 3,011 attending their opening game against Leinster, and 4,062 watching Zebre the following week – although the fact that they were charging 50 South African Rand (a whopping £2.80) per ticket maybe worked against them.
Selling the product cheap is one way to attack the challenge, but the key is surely going to be persuading the local populace that the Cheetahs and the Kings are now competing in something other than a very distant and much poorer relation to the southern hemisphere’s flagship Super Rugby competition.
The fact that this is likely to be a last run-out in Cheetahs’ colours for Sergeal Petersen – the exciting back three player and Springbok hopeful – before he joing the Stormers Super Rugby franchise in Cape Town next month, hardly provides reassurance as to the medium term viability of running the game professionally in two completely different continents.
We were assured at the outset that the South African teams competing in the PRO14 would be much more than just developmental sides.
“In terms of preparing our players for the conditions of the north, you might end up seeing two different Springbok sides being selected; one for inbounds (the June Test series) and the Rugby Championship, and one for outbounds (European tours) in conditions that are completely different, and choosing players paced for that,” said South African Rugby Union chief executive Jurie Roux.
“I can promise you that if we had more teams to move [into Europe] at this stage then we would do so. There is a massive interest. We envisage two more franchises in South African rugby in the near future with the opportunity to play in the north,” he added.
Which all sounds very promising but is nothing but hot air unless the Cheetahs and the Kings can capture the imagination of their respective catchment areas.
Not that any of this will be of immediate concern to Gray or his head coach, Dave Rennie, as they plot a sixth consecutive win on the bounce at the start of this PRO14 season.
The initial prognosis at the end of June was that Gray would be out of action for between four to six months, but he has exceeded expectations with his recovery by making it back in just over three months.
Not only are the Warriors being boosted by the prospect of having the talismanic 23-year-old back in the engine-room for the start of their European Champions Cup campaign, which kicks-off with a daunting away trip to Exeter Chiefs next Saturday night, but this is also good news for Scotland. He now has five weeks to get fully match fit for the start of Scotland’s Autumn Test series against Samoa, New Zealand and Australia.
“It’s great to have Jonny back. He is pretty excited. He was keen to come back last week but we want to make sure his body is alright, especially around contact,” said Warriors head coach Dave Rennie yesterday.
“He is hugely important with his leadership as a former captain. I have really noticed his influence from a line-out perspective over the last few days as well. There is no doubt he is a bit of a talisman for this group and guys will follow him. He has a big role to play in supporting Ryan [Wilson] as captain.”
“We want to get some combinations going before we play the Chiefs next week. We have a strong side on the field even although we have rested Scott Cummings and Lee Jones – who have started every game including our two trial matches. Jonny may not play 80 minutes but will certainly be tested at altitude. He’s been working hard for a lot of weeks jumping out of his skin, so we’re excited to have him in there.”
Scotland hooker Fraser Brown also returns to the starting fifteen after making his first appearance of the season off the bench during last week’s victory over Benetton, but Stuart Hogg (who had shoulder surgery after returning home from the Lions tour) is still a couple of weeks away.
Several leading players, including Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones, wingers Rory Hughes and Lelia Masaga, prop Oli Kebble and back-row Samuela Vunisa are also unavailable, which givesa real sense of the strength in depth at Rennie’s disposal.
The Warriors might currently be the only unbeaten team this season in any of Europe’s top three leagues, but Rennie says his boys are going to have their work cut-out making it six from six.
“They are a big side. Discipline is going to be key because they are going to try to put us in the corners and their driving line-out is the best in the competition,” he explained. “We will need to look after the ball because they have so much pace out wide they can punish you. If we do those things, we are a fit side and I am confident we can deal with the altitude. We need to look after the ball and build some pressure, that is key.”
Glasgow Warriors team to play Toyota Cheetahs in the Guinness PRO14 at the Toyota Stadium, Friday 6 October, live on BBC ALBA (kick-off 7.35pm UK time) –
15. Ruaridh Jackson
14. Tommy Seymour
13. Nick Grigg
12. Sam Johnson
11. Leonardo Sarto
10. Finn Russell
9. Ali Price
1. Jamie Bhatti
2. Fraser Brown
3. Zander Fagerson
4. Tim Swinson
5. Jonny Gray
6. Ryan Wilson CAPTAIN
7. Callum Gibbins
8. Adam Ashe
16. Geroge Turner
17. Alex Allan
18. D’Arcy Rae
19. Brian Alainu’uese
20. Rob Harley
21. Henry Pyrgos
22. Peter Horne
23. Niko Matawalu
Unavailable players:Rory Hughes (shoulder), Chris Fusaro (head), Lelia Masaga (calf), James Malcolm (ankle), Alex Dunbar (knee), Stuart Hogg (shoulder), Oli Kebble (foot), Paddy Kelly (ankle), Ratu Tagive (achilles), Richie Vernon (achilles) and Samuela Vunisa (knee).