No future beyond 2013 for Cheetahs

RYAN VREDE writes that the Cheetahs must enjoy their last two seasons of their Super Rugby free ride because they shouldn’t be involved in 2013.

Their record since they’ve split from the Lions in 2006 tells a tale of dreadful mediocrity: 17 wins in 65 matches with two draws. Even more damning is their diabolical record against Australasian opposition: nine wins in 45 with two draws.

An acceptable standard for a Super Rugby franchise cannot be competitiveness against their countrymen, and this mostly at home. A 27% overall record that plummets to 20% against the boys from Down Under, and no promise of a significant improvement, is a cause for deep concern.

The last assertion is based on the fact that they don’t have the commercial wealth to improve their squad significantly; neither do they have the commercial appeal to attract a major sponsor who could bankroll their progression. Private ownership could be their salvation, but there are a myriad reasons that would deter a high roller from a Robert Gumede-style take-over.

Furthermore, with the exception of Juan Smith and Heinrich Brüssow, their best players look at the Cheetahs as stepping stone to a better gig, and the big franchises, led by the Sharks, are always keen to pick from the unfailing production line of sublime talent.

In return they have to make do with promising youngsters, unexceptional journeymen and other franchises’ discards that see the Cheetahs as a way of playing top-level rugby and drawing a decent salary at the end of the month.

For the aforementioned reasons I’m not convinced the sacking of head coach Naka Drotske will be the catalyst for change, even though his record – eight wins in 42 matches and one draw – says that he should be. It would treat the symptoms of the illness and not its root cause.

The rise of the Southern Kings, who are virtually guaranteed a Super Rugby spot in 2013, and the Lions’ newfound financial clout have heightened the pressure on the Cheetahs. They have to accept that if the Super Rugby format isn’t expanded (and includes an extra South African franchise) that they will make way for the Kings, who will have cash, government backing and a romantic appeal to attract high-quality players.

The Lions won’t be open to a merge (they played as the Cats from 1998 to 2005) because it would flood their squad with ordinary players, where they have the financial resources to fill those slots with men of superior ability. Certainly the likes of Juan Smith and Heinrich Brüssow would be invaluable additions to the roster, but outside of that duo there is little to appeal to the Lions. A potential solution would be for their best players to be put into a draft and bid for by the Lions and Kings.

The logistics were a nightmare in their previous union, social cohesion was never attained because the players always gravitated to their provincial team-mates, and raging arguments over the allocation of games to either Johannesburg or Bloemfontein undermined their cause. The Cheetahs would undoubtedly come hat in hand to any potential merge (keo.co.za understands that they are opposed to the concept at present), but the Lions are unlikely to be in a charitable mood.

Where does that leave the Cheetahs? These should surely be their last two years in Super Rugby. They must enjoy the ride while it lasts. Any suggestion of their continued participation beyond 2012 would be absolutely ludicrous.

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