Why SA can't have 6 Super Rugby teams

Mark Keohane (File)
Mark Keohane (File)

The Brumbies, Australia’s leading team, have 10 league points, which is the seventh best after four rounds of Super Rugby. The fact that they are listed as third best in Super Rugby’s latest table emphasises the colossal cock up in the playing structure of Super Rugby.

My column of a week ago suggested that when the reduction in Super Rugby comes - and each week is reinforcement that it simply has to come - then to safeguard the Eastern Cape and the Free State a solution would be in a merger.

The argument focused on the need to ensure Super Rugby in both regions as both are fundamental to the health of the professional game in South Africa.

It was not a pro-Eastern Cape and an anti-Free State solution. It was one in which both get to live and are not culled because 15 doesn’t go into the current 18 team structure.

South Africa’s decorated Olympian Ryk Neethling, schooled at Grey College and his veins pumping with Cheetahs blood, took exception to my suggestion. He described it on Twitter as a joke. He wasn’t happy and he wasn’t alone.

Ryk defended the Cheetahs' right to be in the competition on the basis of them being the Currie Cup champions. He didn’t mention their Super Rugby record, which is among the worst of any franchise.

Those in the Eastern Cape defended the right to have a team to have something tangible to aspire to.

Those from Gauteng were bullish about their Lions, but they need to be reminded that with the exception of the last two years, the Lions winning percentage in 15 years of Super Rugby was less than 20 percent.

The Lions, in 2007, scored the fewest tries (13). Contrast that to last year when they scored the most (81). The Lions, in 2007, scored the least points (175). Contrast that with last year when they scored the most points by a team in a season in the competition’s history.

Now counter balance the glorious league form of the Lions in 2016 with the Lions who lost a record 15 successive matches in 2010/11 and scored the fewest league points (five) in Super Rugby’s history. My point is don’t dismiss the Kings on the basis of results over three seasons when the Lions had even worse results over 15 years.

And the Lions, who in 2010, lost all 13 league matches, are not the only South African team to experience such a low point.

Incredibly, the five league points (in a season) are not the worst ever. The Bulls in 2002 managed just four league points and lost all 11 league matches.

South Africa’s only ever Super Rugby title winner (the Bulls) and South Africa’s best hope of the title in 2017 (the Lions) are the very same franchises to have produced some of the worst results in the history of the competition.

It is short sighted to want to kill off the Southern Kings after a three-year history, in which there has never been national support from within the South African Rugby Union to ensure an environment of success. Equally the Cheetahs, who have never been protected from player poaching.

The Cheetahs are a franchise that continues to produce some of the best talent in the country but their Super Rugby role seems to be nothing more than a feeder to commercially wealthier franchises.

(Ryk) Neethling quite rightly asked why not merge the Bulls with the Lions? It makes geographic sense, if not commercial sense when compared to the commercial weakness of the Kings and Cheetahs as individual entities.

The Bulls have three glorious years of title dominance as a defence to be an untouchable, but as a franchise it is as infamous for losing every match in a season as it is famous for winning the title three times.

There is no outright provincial or regional winner in any Super Rugby restructuring.

Neethling is right when he asks why the Cheetahs? The bloke from the Bulls is right when he scoffs at merger talk and lists the Bulls three titles? Those in the Eastern Cape, who insist there has to be something tangible, inspirational and aspirational in the region are right.

A case can be made for every region.

There is nothing wrong with each region’s people fighting for the right to have a team, but nationally it isn’t the right solution.

Super Rugby’s six-team South African participation has diluted the strength of the country’s professional game. There isn’t enough money to pay the very good players globally-related salaries and some average players are overpaid and in over their heads when it comes to the playing requirements of a professional rugby player.

There are too many mediocre players commanding big salaries in South Africa and not enough exceptional players being paid the global going rate, which would keep them in South Africa.

Any Super Rugby restructuring has to be in the national interests and primary to this has to be a national contracting system.

If not the competition will only emphasise the divide in South African rugby and it will only benefit the wealthiest among the six regions. The Free State and Eastern Cape will be the biggest losers.

The South African Rugby Union’s leadership has a chance to right the historical wrongs of their Super Rugby decision-making, but to do so the solution must be nationally motivated and not because of provincial bias or distaste.

The decision making - and process - also needs to be transparent and without agenda.

If not any new South African competition structure will be as farcical and the reality as distorted as the Brumbies having the seventh most league points but being guaranteed finishing third and hosting a quarter-final, as is the current Super Rugby format.

Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter

Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24. 

Previous Mark Keohane columns on Sport24:

Super 12 glory is now Super 18 gory

No winner is SARU's half-cocked overseas policy

Keeping Coetzee sadly no April Fools' joke

Mediocrity must fall!

Overseas based SA players are no traitors!

Sick Boks need more than a new doctor

Joost earned more than a minute's silence

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