Is there place for Kings?

2012-02-04 00:00

IT was the best of weeks and the worst of weeks for the schizophrenic South African Rugby Union (Saru).

The sensible decision to appoint Heyneke Meyer as the new Springbok coach was enthusiastically received across the board and the South African game is in good hands.

This time the Springbok appointment was governed by rugby considerations and made for all the right reasons. The professional, organised Meyer will bring dignity, experience and loyalty to the job.

But it is unfortunate that the same logic and forward thinking was not applied to the future of Super Rugby and the controversial position of the Southern Kings franchise. Instead Saru adopted a devil-may-care attitude and simply presented the Kings with a place in Super Rugby in 2013.

As a leading Sanzar official told us: “Guaranteeing the Southern Kings a place in Super Rugby next year is the easy decision. The difficult one is fitting them in.”

No one seems quite certain how it will all work, how the also-rans of the Currie Cup First Division — EP were thumped 43-12 by Boland in the final last year — can be shoehorned into a settled competition and then somehow survive in the most demanding of arenas.

Millions will continue to be poured into the PE franchise by Saru in an attempt to turn three struggling provinces (Eastern Province, Border and SWD) into a competitive Super Rugby franchise, but, initially anyway, that is not the problem.

Saru should have made sure there was room in the inn before handing out an invitation to the Kings. A plan should have been in place, a vacancy created and the support of the Sanzar partners (New Zealand and Australia) gained before Jurie Roux, the Saru CEO, stood up and announced that the Kings are the only South African franchise guaranteed a place in Super Rugby next year.

Yes, that was the lofty statement.

“The Southern Kings’ place in the Super Rugby competition in 2013 was reaffirmed at a Special Council meeting of Saru.

“Proposals on mechanisms to identify the four other South African entrants will be considered at a Saru special general meeting on March 30,” his statement read.

The Bulls, Sharks, Stormers, Cheetahs and Lions are not guaranteed Super Rugby next year, but the untested, unknown Kings are.

There is obviously fierce political pressure on Saru to include the region, the bedrock of black rugby in South Africa, in Super Rugby, and the decision to include the Kings was “unanimously confirmed by the [Saru] members”.

But that was easier said than done and Saru now have to make it work.

They have three options. First prize is if their Sanzar partners (New Zealand and Australia) bend over backwards to accommodate them by allowing South Africa to enter a sixth team in a new Super 16 competition. Don’t hold your breath.

The second choice is to simply replace one of the existing five South African teams with the Kings, and the third option is amalgamating two of the current franchises to create a space. The chances of any of these proposals succeeding are gloomy, to say the least.

Sanzar CEO Greg Peters immediately poured cold water on Saru’s proposal that the number of Super Rugby teams be increased from 15 to 16. (Curiously, Saru did not even have him on board before committing themselves to the Kings).

Peters said a change to the format of the tournament could not take place for the next three seasons.

He said the current structure had been sold to broadcasters and commercial partners for the period up to the end of 2015.

But Saru, arrogantly, believe they can still persuade their Sanzar partners to change the rules. Saru vice-president Mark Alexander, who is on the Sanzar board, said Peters’s statement was “irresponsible”.

Alexander said: “Greg Peters cannot decide there won’t be any expansion of the tournament.

“We are currently preparing a 16-team schedule so that we can go and debate with them.”

The Saru executive asked Keith Parkinson, the former president of the Natal Rugby Union and an experienced administrator, to consider how Super Rugby could be reorganised to accommodate an additional, 16th team (South Africa would then have six teams while New Zealand and Australia have five each).

Parky said that arrangements could be made for each team to play 16 regular league matches (as they do now) “but it will obviously require a fair degree of goodwill and compromise from all three parties — in particular New Zealand and Australia”.

Parkinson propsed that the South African teams play 10 inter-conference matches — five home and five away. They would play three matches against Australian teams and three against New Zealand teams (either two home and one away, or vice-versa).

The Australians would continue to play eight inter-conference matches and then all five NZ teams each year.

They would have games against three South African teams.

A similar system would be used for the New Zealand teams. (Eight inter-conference games, five against all the Australian franchises and three against South African teams).

Parky conceded it would be a hard sell and his proposal would “distort the competition somewhat”, diminishing the international flavour and prejudicing Australia and New Zealand “as the five current South African franchises would play the rookie Kings twice.”

Indeed, it would be a major surprise if SA’s Sanzar partners agreed to bail them out by making such dramatic changes to the format.

What is far more likely is that Saru will have to solve the problem themselves by finding a bed for the Kings.

One of the existing five franchises will have to be ejected or two will have to combine.

The Lions, who have been the worst-placed of the South African teams for four of the last five years (the Cheetahs were last in 2009), are the most obvious candidates to be relegated. But their youngsters, thriving under John Mitchell, won the Currie Cup last year and the Johannesburg area obviously has the population and huge potential.

The Cheetahs are an invaluable rugby factory for South Africa (and particularly the Sharks) while the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers have performed consistently well in Super Rugby in recent seasons.

So how would Saru decide? Initially it was suggested that the team finishing last in this this year’s competition should be replaced by the Kings, but that decision will only be made at the end of March and after five rounds of Super Rugby action. And that belated rule change could certainly be challenged later in court by the team summarily dropped.

In addition, the current Super Rugby format is not fair as all the teams do not meet in round robin play, while bad luck, a slew of injuries or a Bryce Lawrence, could result in one of the more fancied teams having a rare nightmare season and finishing last.

The Saru executive were asked if they have the constitutional right to simply change the rules of the competition. Their legal opinion is that they do, but there is strong body of thought that it is Saru’s President Council which holds sway and the Sharks, WP, the Blue Bulls, the Cheetahs and the Lions could together outvote any proposed change to the Super Rugby structure which places their teams at risk.

If Saru wanted to score political points, why did they not first include the Kings in the Premier division of the Currie Cup? This domestic competition is run by Saru and they could tailor it to their needs and acccommodate the Kings.

Now Saru, having made the promise, face a major and bloody battle.

And once again we see what happens when sporting administrators bow to the uninformed and political pressure.

Hold on to your hats, folks, we are in for stormy weather.

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