Could Bulls, Lions combo work?
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Trivial fact for the day: if you combine the words “Bull” and “Lion” the happy medium seems to be “bullion”.
Considering that that happens also to be the term used to describe precious metals in bulk form, simultaneous images of prosperity do come to mind. (At least they did for me.)
But before I digress any further, the real point of this exercise is to contemplate an issue that tends to be either tiptoed around or simply considered utterly sacrilegious by many, “finish en klaar”... the possible amalgamation of the Bulls and Lions as a Super Rugby entity.
Hear me: I am not saying with any conviction at this stage that it is the right way to go; I am simply opening up an old taboo for slightly deeper thought.
Why? Well, a reshuffling of South Africa’s franchises in the southern hemisphere competition became a strong possibility from the moment SARU chief executive Jurie Roux put firmly on record - before massed media ranks at the announcement of Heyneke Meyer as Springbok coach on Friday - that the Southern Kings would indeed form part of the Super Rugby mix from 2013 onward.
So there’s no going back now, clearly, on an issue that has bubbled, often awkwardly, for some time: the Kings have a place at the table soon, like it or not.
Roux did stress that it was possible the Kings would simply become a sixth SA side in a reshuffled (again!) competition, although quite obviously that scenario would create a jarring imbalance in the current structure, comprising five-team conferences from all three of the giant SANZAR partnership nations.
But let’s assume agreement cannot be reached on any further swelling of the number of teams in Super Rugby, and the only option thus becomes squeezing the Eastern Cape-based side into the five-team local mix.
Early speculation, not unexpectedly, surrounds the possibility of a restoration of the “Cats” brand (even if not necessarily still in that name), merging the Lions with the Cheetahs - and let’s not forget that in the Laurie Mains coaching tenure they achieved semi-finalist status twice.
But those who recall the “heyday” of the partnership will also remember that it certainly wasn’t always that; true team unity was difficult, as you might expect from an unlikely geographical partnership separated by some 400 kilometres, and gates in both Johannesburg and Bloemfontein tended to be unremarkable even when the team was mostly winning.
The Cats also had some awfully lean seasons, and there was widespread relief when the Cheetahs and Lions became independent beings at Super Rugby level once more.
While it is true that the Lions won a watered-down Currie Cup last year, and commendably so after years of mostly heartbreak at Coca-Cola Park on all fronts, in Super Rugby heritage terms the Cheetahs probably have a greater right to unaltered solo existence - they have ended higher than the Lions for four of the last five campaigns.
The Free State also continues to be a major production line in young rugby talent, in the national interest, with Grey College regularly to the fore in that regard.
You would think then, with the Kings pushed, warts and all, through the door in 2013, the Lions will be the domestic franchise most endangered if South African presence is still curtailed to five teams from next year - their recent financial woes are also well documented, despite fighting talk to the contrary from their leading administrators.
Coca-Cola Park has never really embraced Super Rugby with any great relish, so against that backdrop would it really amount to treason or lunacy to suggest that perhaps the answer is to create some sort of Highveld “super franchise” embracing the Bulls as a senior partner (three times champions, after all) and the Lions as their only slightly more junior, depth-providing allies?
You could still pit these great, cross-Hennops rivals against each other in the Currie Cup, which would please traditionalists, but at a time of significant transition at Loftus, considering the simultaneous departure of various legendary players, being able to summon several gnarly Lions players and have others on standby as the extended Super Rugby season takes an injury and fatigue toll, doesn’t seem the daftest proposal in the world.
Or does it? Feel free to tell us your own thoughts, reservations or counter-proposals through the comments forum beneath.
Let’s face it, the rapid urban expansion of the Highveld in recent years means that in some respects Johannesburg and Pretoria are virtually linked at the hip anyway, and the high-speed Gautrain only brings the big metropolises, no more than 60km apart in map terms, closer together as well.
Quite clearly some deft marketing and the like would be required to make any rugby marriage of this kind viable - the Highveld Bulls in name, perhaps? - but you could aid the Super Rugby unification by scheduling a sprinkling of their home games at Coca-Cola Park.
Or, indeed, somewhere like Orlando Stadium (used successfully before by the Bulls, for the victorious 2010 final against the Stormers, and an experiment widely considered worthy of repeat) could serve as a bit of a symbolic “halfway house” compromise at times between Pretoria and Jo’burg.
I make no judgement: my thoughts are simply to open debate, because in the event that South Africa cannot field six Super Rugby teams, something - something pretty substantial - has clearly got to “give”, hasn’t it?
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