South African Rugby’s bosses have one more chance to unify the sport, but instead the fear is changes to the Super Rugby format will only add to division.
There will be a reduction in teams as Super Rugby’s custodians look to again improve the quality of the product. More has been less when it comes to the appeal of Super Rugby. The glory of Super 12 is now the gory of Super 18.
The only way to accommodate a Super 18 or even a Super 20 that includes a team from the United States and one from the Pacific Islands would be to split the tournament into Premier and First Division, with the bottom two relegated and the top two promoted. This would ensure strength versus strength and also give each region international rugby. It won’t happen because it would be too logical.
Let’s not forget that those who are determining the future structure of Super Rugby saw the logic in a playing league system that saw some South African teams only play Australian opposition and some only play New Zealand opposition.
You are dealing with decision makers that saw the logic in a conference system that ensured each country participation in the playoffs, regardless of overall league standings.
Super Rugby’s expansion from 12 to 14 to 15 and then to 18 favoured the weaker component and weighed heavily against New Zealand, whose five competitive franchises play each other twice and effectively cancel each other out when it comes to league points.
A team from South Africa and Australia can currently dominate the league because of not having played New Zealand’s teams and because of the weak nature of the opposition in their respective conferences.
Super Rugby, in its current guise, is all wrong and it’s been diluted in quality to give the paying public and television viewer more games, but in essence it has given the public a lot less in terms of seduction and appeal.
And the public hasn’t been fooled with live match figures down and viewership numbers at a low.
Now those who found such comfort in the illogical are expected to do the logical?
I don’t think so.
It doesn’t mean we can’t dream of the miracle that would be South African rugby’s bosses actually getting it right and putting the country’s needs first and not entrenching historical provincial agendas or a status quo that speaks so easily to a minority within South Africa.
The Eastern Cape simply has to be accommodated in Super Rugby, no matter the nature of the tournament team make-up.
South Africa isn’t strong enough to have six teams competing in a one-tier competition and the professional game isn’t financially healthy enough to accommodate 14 professional provinces, whose major source of income is Super Rugby’s broadcasting deal.
South African Rugby should ideally consist of four regional franchises, in which Gauteng is one and not split between the Bulls and Lions. This won’t happen so the next best would be five regions that retain the traditional four provincial powerhouses and include a franchise that draws from the Eastern Cape and from the Free State and splits its base (and home games) between Port Elizabeth and Bloemfontein.
The future of the South African game is dependent on the Eastern Cape’s inclusion and provincial agendas, politics and the protection of old ways has to be consigned to history.
Again, it won’t, but it doesn’t mean shutting up and just accepting more decision making that does so little to advance rugby in this country.
The Southern Kings, on playing merit, don’t deserve to be in Super Rugby, but then historically neither do the Cheetahs when it comes to performance and results. The Cheetahs also don’t deserve provincial guarantees based on a thriving economic model and packed stadiums.
A case could also be made that for many years the Bulls and Lions didn’t deserve to be in Super Rugby either, if results were the sole judge.
South African rugby’s bosses have the chance to overhaul their professional structure in this country and the South African Rugby Union, by way of insightful application to Super Rugby’s new structural change, can finally enforce a five region split in which the national governing body contracts the top 150 players across those five regions, similar to the New Zealand model that has been so successful.
Merging the Eastern Cape and Free State would show intent to invest in the future of the country’s playing base while not being dismissive of a traditional historic playing base. SA Rugby has to do something different to get a different result.
Simply getting rid of the Kings is not the answer. Keeping the Kings and cutting the Cheetahs or another franchise is also not the answer. South African rugby has to ensure the collective rugby vision in this country is protected and that vision includes being true to investment professionally in the Eastern Cape.
SARU’s bosses sadly have never shown intent to make it work in the Eastern Cape, just like they had little regard for the Lions when playing the two regions off against each other for the right to play in Super Rugby.
That proved destructive and so too will another division between the Eastern Cape and the rest of the country’s playing base.
SARU has to have the government’s financial support (in terms of guarantees) if there is to be any hope of a successful 2023 Rugby World Cup host bid.
SARU can’t exclude the Eastern Cape in Super Rugby but want to include the nation and the continent in their World Cup pitch. It would be a lie.
It’s a win-win situation if the decisions are made for the right collective reasons. I fear this won’t be the case but for rugby to prosper in this country it needs a healthy and vibrant investment in the Eastern Cape and the obvious benefits of playing host to rugby’s marquee event in 2023.
I want to see the World Cup hosted in South Africa in 2023 and I also want to see the Kings and Cheetahs be a solution and not an ongoing problem.
Individually the Kings and Cheetahs will always be strugglers but combined the Kings and Cheetahs can be a region of strength that unifies South African Rugby’s Super Rugby challenge.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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