The South African Rugby Union has announced its intention to introduce another franchise to the Super rugby format, without consulting its Australasian counterparts, but then this is an organisation that has made catastrophe its middle name. Above all, the announcement lacked the respect befitting an outfit like Saru and was treated with deserved contempt by the Australian and New Zealand boards of rugby
And so the battle of the Lions and Kings commenced, adjudicated not by an independent referee but by the very organisation that is meant to offer its ongoing support to both teams. The result is we have been sucked into a game of political chess and it has become rather exhausting.
The most disconcerting fact must be that Saru is supposed to resolve it. What a joke! (Its R40-million “please go away” money is a perfect example of its members’ inept problem-solving techniques). No doubt these will be an interesting few months for the rugby public, where many have begun to see this farce as a classic black comedy.
Sadly, however, behind such calamity lurks the cold, hard truth: Saru have embarrassed themselves and South African rugby as a whole, leaving someone else to foot the bill of their incompetence. And so begins the next act in this black comedy, entitled The Great Irony.
I think many would agree that this season’s Super rugby campaign has seen a watered-down version of previous tournaments. With many star players leaving for abroad in search of greener pastures (that is, the colour of money), we have been left with a pool of players that can really only sustain 12 elite teams across all three participating nations.
The Lions have proved beyond any doubt that they are the poorest of the lot and for some time too. So Saru's idea that this would be a perfect opportunity to introduce a sixth franchise to the competition, further diluting the talent pool, was never going to win the “bright idea of the year” award.
Now, just because South Africa brings in most of the money for the competition from gate receipts, television coverage and sponsors, it still doesn’t mean we get to introduce a team that would account solely as a base in which to blood previously disadvantaged players. You can imagine the shock from the Kiwi and Oz camps on hearing this. There needs to be a greater justification on offer for countries that don’t have to contend with imbalances of past regimes.
As the debate rages on over which of the two trams should participate in next year’s competition, each has its merits.
How can we deny the Lions, who remain the team associated with the economic hub of South Africa? Surely financially it makes no sense? Surely we can’t forego the tradition associated with the famous ground, Ellis Park, where once Nelson Mandela united a country? What about the Lions being the reigning Currie Cup champions? Does that count for nothing?
Yet the motion to include the Kings is not completely unwarranted. The hotbed of black talent has spawned the likes of Lwazi Mvovo, Solly Tyibilika and the Ndugane twins to name a few. Sporting a newly built super stadium, they appear to be investing wisely in their squad for next year. They, too, have a history of breeding excellence, albeit beset by financial mismanagement that has been the chief detractor in recent decades.
Like most South African problems, we so often need to measure them with different scales and in this sense accredit more weight to certain issues over others.
But should we not observe this strictly from a rugby perspective? Winning teams breed success. When you win you attract sponsors. Sponsors bring in the money and so the franchise grows. Can the Kings be better than the Lions? Probably not just yet, but given the performances of the Lions’ franchise in previous seasons, they can’t surely do that much worse. No one can expect a new team to hit the ground running in one of the world’s most competitive tournaments, especially a team that has yet to win the nation’s second-tier domestic competition.
But looking at the Western Force and newly formed Rebels, who struggled in their first year of Super rugby, they still added to the quality of the competition. The Kings’ adjustment to Super rugby will take time, but with Saru at the helm they might not be afforded that luxury.
We must also acknowledge that player development, especially amongst the previously disadvantaged, is not a political issue but actually a rugby one. If the Eastern Cape is the hotbed in which black rugby players are predominantly unearthed, surely by not incorporating such a union into Super rugby would be denying the Springboks a greater pool of talent and a greater chance at success.
We need more black players playing professional rugby, not because it appeases the government or Saru but because too many quality players in the Eastern Cape are slipping through the cracks. This means less star players available for the Boks. It’s a rugby issue - nothing more, nothing less. And for those that do make it, they are quickly purged by richer provinces, even at schoolboy level, denying the region a top- flight team boasting local talent and motivating even more youngsters to take up the game.
The Lions vs Kings issue indeed is a conundrum, and I have my doubts whether Saru can figure it out. We cannot expect players from the rejected Lions outfit to suddenly shift themselves down to the Eastern Cape to partake in Super rugby. Many will contend this, but this is not football, where players are bought out of contracts on a regular basis. And with the Kings sporting what many believe to be a modest budget, sometimes players will need more than the lure of Super rugby to entice them. There will be the odd exception, but do not think for one second that the Lions Rugby Union will accept its fate and lie down, releasing all its players and happily sending them on their merry way down to the windy city.
There are suggestions that we should spite ourselves and turn our back on our “unreasonable and narrow-minded counterparts” down udner, turning our allegiances to the northern hemisphere and somehow incorporating ourselves into the Heineken Cup. What a logistical nightmare this would be! We would need to change the dates of our season (cricketers won’t be happy), incorporate it into our Currie Cup (a valid point), relinquish any rugby championship participation (the result of sour grapes from Australia, New Zealand and Argentina) and lose the joy of watching the running rugby of the Super rugby tournament and swapping it for the bore fests often associated with European rugby.
Our best bet lies solely with what I have coined the “tough-luck” principle. Its premise is based upon a situation where the principle is non-negotiable. It works like this:
Saru are inept. Tough luck. The Lions are relegated. Tough luck. Their dire performances over the last 5 years have become untenable, so is it that bad to not watch them play? They will sue Saru and will be paid handsomely, but it won’t change their position. Tough luck.
The Kings are instated, to which I say good luck! However, depending on the amount of time afforded them by Saru to ingratiate into the Super XV, we could very easily see them relegated next year. This brings me back to my initial theory: tough luck.
Relegation is a simple process and it is solely judged on performance. However, it would be beneficial to SA Rugby to give the Kings a two-season grace period to prove they can perform at the required level. After that, may the top four teams play and may Saru be forever sued! DM