Opinionista Murray Ingram 11 April 2017

The SuperSport Rugby Festivals are a good idea, but miss the boat on holistic transformation

It’s essentially just the Vodacom Cup repackaged, and while its community focus does offer a pathway for transformation box-ticking, it still misses a few key points on ensuring this process is holistic, tangible and, more importantly, sustainable.

So, there’s a new South African rugby tournament in the offing.

“Rugby festivals at five different venues across the breadth and depth of South Africa – with provincial and club teams in action – will be a key feature of the SuperSport Rugby Challenge, the exciting new competition launched by SA Rugby and SuperSport in Johannesburg on Monday,” the media report said.

It all sounds very exciting, but on closer inspection it seems to mimic the old Vodacom Cup. Between 1998 and 2015, at this time of the year, rugby fans would usually have been subjected to that tournament – essentially designed to keep fringe players and teams match ready, while Super Rugby was on the go.

Last year, it disappeared. In its place popped up the confused and extended “Currie Cup qualifier”. It seems that has now once again been repackaged as a regional “community tournament”. 

Besides the club sides, it’s pretty much the same teams that used to contest the old Vodacom cup, now playing in their respective regional groups at various outer-lying venues on Sundays.

On the surface, that might be a good idea, but it is curious that a number of the venues say they are “to be confirmed”. Odd when considering the emphasis on “community”. And don’t be fooled by how community clubs might get to test their mettle against some provincial sides.

From the listed fixtures, it appears that these “community” teams will simply play each other, as curtain raisers, often early in the day when most people might still be in church.

The notion that this is somehow going to “transform the rugby landscape” is a reaching a bit. You can bet your bottom dollar that this decision was, at least in part, made to further the transformation agenda, but there are a few issues with it.

Taking semi-professional, live rugby to communities that wouldn’t necessarily have access to such fixtures is good. Fixtures on a Sunday in different regions? Also good. Broadcasting it on SuperSport (even on the cheapest bouquets) is less good. We know that the national broadcaster does not have the funds to back such an initiative, but Saru are good friends with Vodacom. How about allowing streaming of these fixtures (for free) via the Vodacom app as a start?

And then there is the reliance on the pre-existing provincial structures which, for too long, has hindered South Africa’s progress. By restricting our professional game to 14, previously amateur unions, we’ve essentially created an Oligopoly.

At the recent SARU Executive Council meeting there was an adaption to their constitution allowing for up to a 74% private stake in the respective unions’ commercial arms.  This is a move towards genuine professionalism that is long in the making and in my opinion, one that’s come way too late.

To me, the union system remains anti-competitive, ironically so, when put into the context of the transformation discussion and how defenders of the old regime constantly use the word “merit” when reasoning why transformation targets are unrealistic.

SARU and their respective sponsors are desperately trying to adapt to the needs of the modern rugby supporter and at the same time take the game to the broader populace.

I understand why this tournament will make sense to them, it once again gives playing opportunities to fringe players and unions not involved in Super Rugby and it gives clubs some much needed TV exposure. But beyond that, it’s not going to transform the rugby landscape in the same way that the Varsity cup and in particular, the Varsity Shield have.

Supporters are tired of the same rehashed product. Tired of the same derbies and the same style of rugby that’s been played over and over for the last 20 years.

In the same way that I feel that the future of our top professional teams is up North in Europe, instead of in Australasia, we need a radical rethink of our domestic rugby programme. One that would allow clubs to be promoted or relegated from a Currie Cup premier division all the way down to regional domestic leagues. 

This happens in nearly every league in Europe. Why not here? DM

Murray Ingram is the co-founder of Connect Sports Academy, the SA Sport Industry’s 2016 Development Programme of the Year. Additional reporting and input by Antoinette Muller.

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