The rationale for SA Rugby ‘pushing’ for a sixth franchise in Super Rugby shouldn’t be taken at face value, writes Keo in Business Day Sport Monthly.
Allow me to refresh your memories about South Africa’s bid to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup and the trade-off between the government and the South African Rugby Union (Saru). In return for government support by way of a financial guarantee to Rugby World Cup (Pty) Ltd, Saru’s bosses would agree to a Super Rugby region in the Southern and Eastern Cape that would play in the tournament by 2009 and would replace the lowest-finishing South African franchise.
The franchise, called the Southern Spears, was formed and in the first year played pre-tournament warm-up matches against South African franchises and Kenya. All was warm and fuzzy. Peter de Villiers was made coach and Tony McKeever, as CEO, was given a blank cheque book.
Then South Africa lost the World Cup bid, Saru no longer needed government surety and the Spears got canned. Within 12 ugly months of fighting between the Spears administration and Saru, the latter spent approximately R12 million on the Spears to make the promise of a new region go away.
Now the region is back on the agenda and so are the Saru promises. This once again at a time when South Africa is bidding for the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, and this once again at a time when the bid won’t be entertained unless there is government support in financial surety.
How stupid do those working at Saru think those making the government decisions are? Quite clearly, the opinion is they think they are dealing with some pretty daft chaps, because those within Saru seem to have forgotten the promises of a few years ago. And so do those in government because the government has already endorsed the 2015 and 2019 bids as long as there is recognition of a Super Rugby franchise in the Southern and Eastern Cape.
Saru president Oregan Hoskins, who supported the closing down of the Spears as one of his selection campaign promises, has now boldly stated that the formation of a sixth Super Rugby region in the Southern and Eastern Cape is his priority and that there will be many a sleepless night until this has been achieved.
‘Let no one have any misconceptions, the delivery of Super Rugby to the South Eastern Cape is a priority objective for South African rugby and no one in our organisation will rest until it is achieved,’ Hoskins told the media.
When asked how South Africa could justify six franchises when Australia were adamant they did not have enough, Hoskins said his union would agree to the South African side playing as an Australian one in the tournament draw.
It was a ridiculous response in every sense and it looked more foolish when Australian CEO John O’Neill rubbished the prospect and also confirmed that Australia would not support a sixth South African region in a one-team tournament expansion, even if it paraded as an Australian outfit.
‘We’re more than happy for people to express an interest but you’d have to think about time zones and logistical arrangements,’ O’Neill said. ‘It really doesn’t make sense for an Eastern Cape side to fit into an Australian conference,’ O’Neill told the Brisbane Times.
What we have here from Hoskins is politician talk to ensure government interest in the World Cup bid and to calm the transformation critics. What should also not be forgotten is the interests of the existing five South African franchises in the competition and their mandate to Hoskins and acting managing director of South African rugby Andy Marinos, which was not to agree to a tournament expansion that would impact on the timing of the Currie Cup competition.
Why? Because the Currie Cup remains South African rugby’s premier domestic competition, with television ratings and crowd attendance on the increase, and because the Currie Cup broadcast rights have already been sold to SuperSport in a deal that ensured a weakening of the collective South Africa, New Zealand and Australia (Sanzar) broadcasting alliance.
This, by the way, was done without Sanzar’s knowledge and only aggravated tensions within the alliance, with New Zealand and Australian critics describing it as an act of South African selfishness.
Why not? Australia’s attempt at a domestic provincial championship lasted a year and was scrapped because of finances, and New Zealand’s domestic provincial competition is a financial disaster and has been reduced to a feeder tournament for Super Rugby franchises because current All Blacks don’t feature. Australia and New Zealand had hoped South Africa would view the Currie Cup similarly, but they underestimated the history of the tournament in this country and the lack of appeal (to South Africans) of Super Rugby, largely because of South Africa’s failure since 1996.
An expansion of Super 14 to Super 15 depends on the playing schedule and South Africa has already blocked any attempt to play the tournament between March and August, as was Australia’s proposal.
Initially O’Neill wanted a Super 20 that included Japan, Argentina and the United States and allowed for a sixth South African franchise, but that would mean this Super 20 being the primary provincial competition, running either side of the June internationals.
The Currie Cup and the value attached to it in South Africa has killed that proposal, to which O’Neill said: ‘There are issues over whether Springboks continue playing in the Currie Cup. The reality for all three unions is that we can only afford one level of professional rugby, which is Super Rugby. Currie Cup, NZ Cup and Premier Rugby [in Australia] is not the professional game.’
With the Super 20 an impossibility, O’Neill’s second prize is a fifth Australian franchise in Super 15, and that is the only reasonable change to the competition should there be an expansion all three in the alliance agree on, and there has to be a ‘three-yes vote’ for any change.
The Currie Cup has become the biggest threat to Super Rugby’s future in the most ironic of twists, and New Zealand Rugby Union CEO Steve Tew admitted how difficult agreement was on what would benefit all of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.
‘As we work through the detail, we are all finding issues. Whatever we decide has to work from both the playing side and from a commercial standpoint. The South Africans have got sound reason for wanting to protect the period around the Currie Cup while Australia wants more Super Rugby,’ said Tew. ‘We have three countries with unique demands and we don’t have all the solutions.’
The proposed plan for a Super Rugby expansion increases the tournament to 22 weeks and a lot more matches with South Africa, Australia and New Zealand teams first playing in a five-team local conference series on a home and away basis. Thereafter, each team would play the other 10 teams in the Super 15 once in a season and the top two teams from each conference would play in Super Six play-offs, with each country guaranteed two representatives in the play-offs.
What stands in the way of all this is South Africa’s refusal to move the Currie Cup from early July to late October, with the Sharks, Bulls, Western Province, Lions and Cheetahs adamant the Currie Cup, as a tournament, has never been stronger.
The South African contradiction is an insistence on still wanting to be part of Sanzar post-2010 and confirming to New Zealand and Australia that there will be no move to play the South African Super Rugby regions in a new European tournament.
Then again, it could just be South Africa buying time while consultants work out a strategy that suits going to Europe more and one that does not interfere with the timing of the Currie Cup. Nothing in rugby negotiations is a surprise and even when a decision is made, it is no guarantee it will happen. The same Sanzar guys who met recently in Dubai had met in July 2008 in Perth and agreed to an expanded play-off for the 2009 Super 14. Yet, despite the assurances of Perth, the idea was binned before Christmas because there was no agreement on a formula.
More is not always better, as the expansion from Super 12 to Super 14 showed. And in the South African context less would be an improvement. In the history of the tournament only one South African team has averaged a top-four place – the Sharks – in the three-year history of Super 14.
The lack of depth is illustrated by the performances of the Cheetahs and Lions. When they played as one region they were hopeless, finishing 11th and 12th in six of their eight tournament appearances. Once the team split the results were even more damning with the Cheetahs’ last three tournament placings 10th, 11th and 13th. The Lions were even worse at 13th, 12th and 14th and now South Africa wants a sixth franchise?
When you add it all up, there is no place for another South African side, and if the Southern and Eastern Cape are to be accommodated as one of the five South African representatives then it has to be at the expense of the Lions or Cheetahs.
Make that decision now Mr Hoskins and let your staff get some rest unless of course, as I suspect, a black Super Rugby franchise in the Eastern Cape has nothing whatsoever to do with expanding Super Rugby.