JOHN BISHOP on the looming crisis in South African rugby

2012-02-18 00:00

IT has been a couple of weeks now since the SA Rugby Union set off on their journey to disaster and the only light at the end of the tunnel is that of a rapidly approaching train.

Saru’s barmy and ill-considered plan to invite the Southern Kings to join the Super Rugby party — without making any prior arrangements — will haunt them and South African rugby for the next few months and possibly years.

No one has the foggiest clue how South Africa’s leading officials are going to rescue the situation. You can hear the Australians and New Zealanders chortling from here.

Saru, in bowing to pressure and in true Neville Chamberlain fashion, have followed a policy of appeasement to satisfy blinkered politicians and their own consciences. And so the Southern Kings, without any record of success, have been guaranteed Super Rugby next year.

Yes, they have the numbers and the clubs; yes, Border and Eastern Province form the bedrock of black rugby in South Africa; and, yes, there should be a Super Rugby franchise in the area to boost transformation and the game.

But, unfortunately, that is not the modern way. Sentiment, goodwill and charity are outweighed by money, contracts, winning and survival in the harsh world of professional rugby.

If Saru officials were honest in wanting to promote the Eastern Cape area as a future Super Rugby franchise — and the decision was first made in 2005 — then the team should have been nurtured and fast-tracked through the Currie Cup ranks until they could earn their place on merit.

The Kings at present are demonstrably not good enough to even play in an expanded eight-team Currie Cup competition, yet they have been thrust into the toughest provincial competition in world rugby. And Saru will now spend millions on players and support staff from outside the franchise to build a competitive team for next year.

But first things first and they have still to make space for the Kings in the competition. Do Saru honestly believe that Sanzar will cover their mess by changing the format of the competition and increasing the number of teams from 15 to 16 ?

Sanzar CEO Greg Peters has again emphasised that contracts have been signed and the tournament will not change until 2015.

He told reporters that accommodating the Kings was a domestic issue for Saru.

“It is incumbent on Saru to make the necessary adjustments to facilitate the Kings’ inclusion.”

Reports that South Africa’s five existing franchises (Sharks, Bulls, Stormers, Cheetahs and Lions) will boycott next year’s tournament if one of them is relegated have added to the pressure on Saru. Australians and New Zealanders will not take to that form of blackmail.

The five franchises have argued that that the popularity of Super Rugby in this country justifies having a sixth team in the competition.

The big five pointed out that in 2011 South African viewers provided 62% of the total television audience.

Sharks CEO Brian van Zyl said that they believed Sanzar should help South Africa because “we bring the most commercial value to the table” in terms of money and viewership, which is shared equally by all three unions.

Van Zyl pointed out that South Africa faced unique problems and Sanzar needed to help them.

He has publicly admitted that Saru officials had bowed to pressure in admitting the Kings.

“The Kings issue has been around so long, and there has been so much political pressure that it was an emotional decision.

“There is a hell of a lot of pressure being put on everyone, from equity partners to government, to include the Kings. It’s such a hot potato, if only one union said no to the Kings’ inclusion, there could have been a backlash.”

Bulls CEO Barend van Graan said Sanzar had to rescue the situation.

“If you look at the television viewership, South Africans are the basis of the whole agreement. Sanzar must be reasonable. If one [South African] team were relegated, it would probably be the end of them.”

Jurie Roux, Saru’s CEO, is to meet Australian and New Zealand officials within the next week to argue the case, but again, no one will be holding their breath.

The tone has already been set by influential Australian rugby writer Greg Growden.

Under the Sydney Morning Herald headline “Sulking South Africans stand no chance of adding to Super quota”, Growdon wrote a fiercely critical article, highlighting Saru’s previous squeals about the tournament.

“Now they are complaining that they don’t have enough teams in the tournament — and that if the tournament isn’t expanded from a Super 15 to Super 16, they will boycott the event.

“Forget about it. It’s not going to happen. It is just the latest in a long line of the type of political bluster of which SA rugby officials are the masters.”

He said South Africa had no hope of increasing their number of teams from five to six.

“The Super 15 will remain the Super 15 until at least 2016 [when the latest television rights deal ends]. One SA province will have to go to allow the Kings to come in. End of story.”

Just how Saru will fit six teams into five will be made known at the annual meeting at the end of March. With the franchises ruling out any merger to make space, it seems relegation is the only alternative. This, of course, means that teams would have played five rounds before being informed that the goalposts have been moved. And we have already been told that the five existing franchises will not accept relegation.

Chamberlain, after meeting Herr Hitler in 1938, optimistically trumpeted about“peace for our time”.

Limp-wristed South African rugby officials cannot even promise that … and there are five South African franchises who are preparing for war.

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