The culling of two South African Super Rugby teams is a good thing for South African rugby.
South Africa has never had the quality in depth to justify six franchises. Four is the maximum in South Africa if the motivation is that each of the regions can be commercially successfully and actually win the tournament.
The expansion from the original four to five weakened the South African collective challenge and the addition of the Southern Kings, justified in its philosophy, was never successfully transferred for the expected favourable outcome.
The South African Rugby Union, after consultation with the six existing franchise CEO’s, will determine which two teams get the chop.
On the surface it has to be the Kings and the Cheetahs if commercial feasibility and franchise player strength are the primary factors.
The Cheetahs and Kings will look to play on the emotional aspects of continued inclusion in Super Rugby. It won’t be enough to save them because financially neither can justify inclusion and the poor return in results does neither franchise any favour.
The Cheetahs are the domestic champions but there is a massive difference between Currie Cup and Super Rugby participation. The Kings, given the financial mess of rugby in the Eastern Cape and the chaos that has played out in the past few years, don’t have an argument for a stay of execution.
The Kings inclusion, in a merger of sorts, would be politically motivated but there is a commercial and rugby argument that says the primary focus should be to make the Eastern Cape provinces competitive in the Currie Cup and ensure that this is the platform to Super Rugby for their best players by way of a draft system.
I have been critical of the South African Rugby Union’s leadership because of its silence on matters pertaining to the Springboks, the national coaching set-up and also the lack of information in relation to Super Rugby.
It was refreshing to hear SARU CEO Jurie Roux being expressive, informative and ruthless in his summary of the necessity for a reduction from six to four teams.
There was also humility in his wording because there was acknowledgement that South African rugby’s leadership, through its decision makers, had overestimated the South African rugby product as a collective and been arrogant to believe the conveyor belt of producing world class professional players was never ending.
South Africa, as a rugby country, doesn’t currently have more than 120 professional players of the necessary quality to make four competitive squads, whose players are capable of winning the competition, filling stadiums and attracting necessary commercial investment.
SARU, as the governing body of rugby and custodian of the game, would have been doing the game’s future considerable damage with an ego-driven decision to continue with six franchises that invariably produced poor on the field results and equally inadequate commercial returns within the respective franchises.
The Super Rugby and Rugby Championship broadcasting deal is not a SA professional rugby Trust Fund. There has to be reward for investors and of late there has just been risk.
SARU’s leadership has recognized this and what is the greatest positive is that the CEO (Jurie Roux) and president (Mark Alexander) have spoken publicly about the change.
The comments have been insightful and the articulation has been educational because there has been honesty applied to the situation. That alone has to be applauded given the historical non-commitment on issues over the past decade.
Professional rugby was launched in South Africa in 1996 but the game has never functioned exclusively as a professional sport. There has been so much carry over from the amateur era and there has simply been too much accommodating of amateur ways. It has been to the detriment of the sport as a professional enterprise.
The reduction to four teams allows for a new thinking, new commercial criteria and unemotional rugby decisions.
South African rugby simply cannot compete with the Euro, the Sterling or the Yen. The US dollar, in terms of the emerging American market, will also become a factor.
Roux, in explaining the overseas player drain, was emphatic about how the player exodus, which totals more than 300 players (including 65 Springboks), has softened the core of South African professional rugby.
The Springboks will recover and can always survive the overseas player migration, but the Super Rugby franchises can’t always replace like with like.
The only way to attempt to compete with the international market is to reduce the number of professional players in South Africa and pay them salaries that are globally competitive. Better players produce better results and better results produce bigger crowds and a winning team in a filled stadium produces the big commercial investors.
South African rugby has this chance to get right what they got wrong in attempting to be everything to everyone within the 14 provincial unions.
Players, whose Super Rugby winning return is 30 percent, don’t have the right to make demands. Neither do those franchises who consistently are a financial burden and a commercial liability to South African rugby.
Change has finally come to professional rugby in South Africa - and it has to be ruthless for it to finally be right.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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