Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - SANZAAR officially on Sunday threw a long, teasing and perhaps dangerously wobbly pass at SA Rugby.
Will they grasp it and streak relatively unimpeded for the try-line, or will they be smashed back in the tackle and knock it on?
Not too unexpectedly, South Africa have been told by the umbrella body to chop two of their six teams - or read: 33.3 percent of their stock - from a remodelled Super Rugby competition next season for the three years to the end of the 2020 campaign.
Australia will also have a headache to deal with, albeit that theirs may be the stuff curable more by Panado than Myprodol, if you like: slashing one of their five current participants as the competition, desperately keen to restore a better strength-versus-strength hallmark, squeezes back to 15 teams from present unwieldy 18.
That is a crucial development likely to find favour with rugby purists, still harbouring fond memories of the halcyon, straightforward, round-robin days of Super 12 and even Super 14.
Regrettably to some, no doubt, a conference system will be retained under the new dispensation, keeping an undesirable sense of artificiality (again not everybody plays absolutely everybody else in ordinary season) although it will have a slightly less complicated look and feel, with the four present conferences reduced to three – single New Zealand, South African and Australian ones, all featuring five teams.
The Jaguares will remain as fifth element of the lone (rather than clumsy two) SA pool, with the Sunwolves latching onto the Aussie group and the altogether more harmonious NZ group staying as is.
In a volatile global economy generally, Super Rugby has been far from immune to financial angst over the past couple of years, with bums on stadium seats and television viewership both quite badly down in many of its centres.
Ridiculously one-sided matches, or at least easy picks results-wise for tipsters, have become too commonplace since SANZAAR stubbornly, over-ambitiously expanded its horizons to 18 franchises.
What we need are more matches of the dazzling, hammer-and-tongs quality of the Stormers-Chiefs encounter at a pleasingly near-full Newlands on Saturday, and the snip really should assist on that score.
Ironically the newest pair, the South American Jaguares and Japanese Sunwolves - who radically altered the once-streamlined, three-nation complexion of Super Rugby when they entered the fray in 2016 - have survived the trimming move.
Significantly, though, their respective primary bases are both particularly large and influential metropolises - Buenos Aires and Tokyo - and that is why, if orthodox rugby sense (and cents, and rands) is to prevail, the good people of Bloemfontein (Cheetahs) and Port Elizabeth (Kings) respectively need to be the ones losing their access to an on-the-doorstep Super Rugby team for the next few years.
The competition is, and may only continue to be, almost ingloriously volatile in structure, so if those regions can continue to overcome challenges and somehow strengthen their more customary “provincial”, grassroots and schoolboy traditions anew, it may not be beyond the bounds of possibility that they return to the higher level of competition somewhere down the line.
It is a cold fact that people do not turn out in any significant, consistent numbers for Super Rugby in those smaller South African cities and, as long as both the Cheetahs and Kings are losing or even being absolutely walloped in matches more regularly than they are winning them, how on earth can you assemble the necessary cultural template for prosperity?
There’s also this minor silver lining: given the constant, quite possibly still mounting exodus of best and also more moderate first-class talent from this country to more lucrative club shores abroad, you have to imagine that the quartet of SA sides remaining in Super Rugby from next year will be pretty keen to snap up, for much-needed squad depth purposes, the players from the banished franchises who have shown they can cut it in the competition.
All of the Stormers, Bulls, Sharks and Lions represent undeniably the most powerhouse urban domestic regions of recent decades in rugby terms and, frankly, if you ditch any single one of those four it is an immediate new, utterly unwanted and counter-productive blow to Super Rugby’s spirited wider quest to get its legitimacy back.
Can anyone muster genuinely credible disagreement on that score?
For example, talk of axing the Bulls, just because they are in the grips of current crisis in the result column, is simply absurd.
They are the only South African outfit, never forget, to have actually won proper pro-era Super Rugby ... and done so three times.
The huge, potentially very painful splinter on the SA Rugby decision-making seat over the next delicate few weeks, of course (finality is anticipated over the four green-light franchises by end June) is the issue of the Kings and the manner in which they tick heavyweight political boxes on our shores.
SA Rugby are dealing with a new sports minister, Thembelani Nxesi, in a controversially reshuffled SA Cabinet and against a particularly fraught broad political backdrop, and how Government reacts to a possible dismantling of its “pet project” in Eastern Cape rugby will be a strong kingmaker in determining whether the process suddenly becomes a whole lot more complicated for the rugby administrators.
Yes, that SANZAAR “pass” is floating in a moody, gusting breeze ...
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