Cheeting death

RYAN VREDE, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says the Cheetahs’ Super Rugby future rests on Saru’s capacity to find a workable solution to a very complex problem.

The Kings are alive. Long live the Kings. That matter is settled. Ignore reports you’ve heard to the contrary. The Eastern Cape will have a Super Rugby franchise from 2013.

The issue now is which South African franchise they’ll displace if the tournament isn’t expanded. Everything points to the Cheetahs surrendering their licence and Saru has done little to ease their fears.

Those fears will deepen when the Cheetahs come to the full realisation that the Kings have the financial muscle, commercial appeal and political support to underpin their claim for entry into the southern hemisphere showpiece. Theirs is no idle threat.

The Lions were always expected to be the franchise in the most danger of having the music stopped on their Super Rugby party. Their record throughout their tenure is diabolical. If performances over the period of participation were the sole criteria for continued involvement, there would be an upsurge in the purchase of career classifieds at Lions HQ.

Those concerns marked the 2010 BG (Before Gumede) era. Now there is a newfound belief about the future of the franchise. The billionaire’s investment has stayed the vultures that were patiently waiting the passing of the mortally wounded cat, acting as, they believe, the tonic that will restore health.

A wealthy and potentially successful Lions franchise is undoubtedly more appealing to the moneymen at Saru than a poor Cheetahs one with little prospect of making a significant improvement. It seems a simplistic argument to make, but the truism stands: Money is power. This leaves the Cheetahs in a dire situation.

No assessment of the Cheetahs can ignore results. At the time of writing, their record since they divorced from the ill-fated and dysfunctional marriage with the Lions (known as the Cats) in 2006 tells a tale of dreadful mediocrity: 18 wins in 72 matches with two draws. Even more damning is their diabolical record against Australasian opposition: 10 wins in 48 matches with two draws.

An acceptable standard for a Super Rugby franchise cannot be competitiveness against their countrymen, and this mostly at home. A 26% overall win record that plummets to 20% against the boys from Down Under is shocking.

A victory over the Waratahs in Sydney in March (their first ever in Australia) had the naive hailing the rise of the Cheetahs. Subsequent results (at the time of writing, they had gone on to lose heavily against the Reds, as well as be edged by the Blues) proved the victory was an aberration.

It must be noted that they have endured rotten luck, with injuries to key players in the past two years, most notably their captain Juan Smith, who has sat in more doctors’ waiting rooms than on buses to games. The irrepressible Heinrich Brüssow is another who they’ve missed a great deal. Neither would look out of place in a World XV and their absence more than any other (the Cheetahs have had up to 12 regulars unavailable through injury) has undoubtedly contributed to their woeful record.

The dearth of quality in reserve is a major concern for the Cheetahs. But to establish that depth you need money to contract better squad players, and money is a scarce commodity in the region.

Private ownership seems a viable solution to their struggles. CEO Harold Verster reveals that they have had ‘many offers’ in this regard. Yet he remains wary of the concept.

‘We could easily sell off to a massive investor. But when you sell your shares you sell your future,’ Verster says. ‘We’re not prepared to do that, although I’m not totally opposed to it if we could figure out a way to make it mutually beneficial.

‘The Lions won’t benefit indefinitely from Robert Gumede’s investment. Part of that money will be used to settle debts, part of it will be directed at players’ salaries and recruitment and some used for the day-to-day running of the business.

‘In the final analysis R80 million doesn’t stretch as far as some may think. Success generates more revenue, but 50% of whatever the Lions make in future will go into Gumede’s pocket. That’s not a situation that appeals to us.’

Verster’s intentions are noble, but the future he speaks of looks bleak without a significant cash injection. The Cheetahs don’t possess the commercial appeal of the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers and therefore don’t attract the multi-million rand sponsorships those franchises do. They also pale in comparison in their ticket and merchandise sales.

It is therefore obvious that the loss of their franchise licence would be catastrophic for the region, given that approximately 50% of their turnover stems directly from their participation in Super Rugby.

Herein lies the broader implication of losing their licence that must be carefully examined by the decision-makers.

The Free State has produced some of the country’s finest players in recent years. Seven members of the Springboks’ 2007 World Cup-winning squad hail from Bloemfontein or the surrounding areas and many of them are among the best in their positions in world rugby. Prodigiously gifted youngsters roll out of their schools – particularly Grey College – each year, and are either drafted into the Cheetahs’ system or snapped up by other franchises.

Verster is unequivocal when asked to predict the potential effects of cutting the umbilical cord to Super Rugby.

‘Rugby in this region would die a fast death,’ he says. ‘We wouldn’t be able to hold on to promising juniors, who’d all want to play Super Rugby and therefore go to school or university in a region with a franchise. We’d be bankrupt in no time because the union wouldn’t be able to generate enough money to sustain itself. That would be a travesty of the highest order.

‘We believe we’ve got more players like Bismarck du Plessis, Ruan Pienaar, Frans Steyn, Heinrich Brüssow and Juan Smith here. People will argue that those first three guys and others like them developed into world-class players at other franchises. But how would you explain Smith and Brüssow then?

‘We’d like to believe that our structures – at school and junior provincial levels – are among the best in the world. Without money that will no longer be the case and I then foresee significantly fewer players of that calibre coming through.’

SA Rugby magazine understands that the matter of the Cheetahs’ future was supposed to be discussed after Saru’s annual general meeting in late March. That never happened, with Saru explaining to the Cheetahs that the matter demanded a special forum. The date was yet to be set at the time of writing.

Our attempts to get comment from the governing body on anything relating to the Cheetahs’ future were flatly denied on the basis that no decisions had been made yet. Sanzar gave us the same response.

‘The situation is frustrating for us,’ Verster says. ‘We want to resolve the matter as fast as we can. Saru has said it will work something out. I don’t know what it has in mind. Also, and I’m not naming names, in the past we were led to believe that the tournament would be further expanded to accommodate us. That hasn’t been spoken about since, so you understand my pessimism. It looks increasingly likely that we will make way for the Kings or Lions.

‘But I won’t accept that we must sit by passively and watch our franchise licence being stripped away. The decision-making process must be fair. If you look at the past five years, the Lions have been the worst- performing franchise. But they’ve got a big investor now and all talk of them being the ones relegated seems to have disappeared.

‘But their improved financial situation is irrelevant. It doesn’t guarantee success. There is no difference to their performance, even after they invested heavily in their squad.

‘Forget about Gumede’s millions, this is a rugby issue and the potential to improve your squad mustn’t be taken into consideration when deciding who gets a franchise licence in 2013 and who doesn’t, if indeed that is what it comes down to.’

Verster is also vehemently opposed to the idea of another merger with the Lions as a possible solution.

‘It’s simply not an option for us, for a number of reasons. The franchises have totally different cultures – from the way we train to the way we prepare for matches to our after-match routines.

‘It didn’t work for six years when the Griffons, Griquas and Free State combined to form the Cheetahs. Only now are we starting to get it right and even then it’s not an ideal situation. We’re not willing to sacrifice years of tradition just because it provides a simple answer to a complex situation.

‘Logistically the merger was and will be a nightmare. Our players had to travel hundreds of kilometres to Johannesburg, live out of a hotel for weeks on end away from their loved ones and still be expected to play at a high level. People will argue that it’s the professional era and they just have to deal with it. But that’s a narrow-minded approach. You can’t undervalue the impact that being close to family and friends and the familiarity of home has on a player’s performance.

‘The more practical solution would be for the Bulls and Lions to merge. They’re 50km apart. Doesn’t that make more sense? But it won’t happen because the Bulls have a strong identity and the Lions believe Gumede’s investment will bankroll success in the very near future.’

It would be ludicrous to decide the awarding of a Super Rugby franchise licence on the result of a promotion-relegation match between the lowest-placed South African franchises. History suggests this would likely be the Cheetahs and Lions, although Verster half-jokingly suggested it could involve the Bulls given how many senior players are expected to leave at the end of the 2011 season. A poor 80 minutes (even in a home-away format) could cost either side millions. But more than that, Verster rightly argues that it could cost the region its rugby future.

It is undeniably the biggest and most complex decision Saru has had to make in years. As a means of avoiding that call, it will push for an expansion of the tournament and an additional South African franchise when the 2013 contract is negotiated.

Saru will hope its Australasian partners are accommodating, but the manner in which it has been marginalised in the past doesn’t inspire confidence in this regard.

Verster: ‘The region is on the brink of death. But we’re choosing to believe that we’ll live on. I hope our faith is not unfounded.’

– This article first appeared in the May issue of SA Rugby magazine. The June issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 18 May.
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