Kings’ inclusion forces Super shake-up

JON CARDINELLI examines the ramifications of the Southern Kings’ guaranteed entry into the 2013 Super Rugby tournament.

For better or worse, there is going to be change. Saru has confirmed the Kings will join the Super Rugby family next year and that one way or another the competition is never going to be the same.

Discussions around next year’s format are ongoing, and the final decision on the format as well as the total number of participants in 2013 will only be announced by Sanzar in March. What’s guaranteed is that the Kings will feature, meaning there’s a possibility one of the existing franchises will be excluded or that two teams could be forced to unite under one banner. Saru CEO Jurie Roux said there was another option that would see all six South African franchises playing in 2013.

The problem with the first option is determining who should be relegated. Is it the team that has struggled in recent years or is it the side that finishes at the bottom of the South African conference in 2012?

Another thing to consider is that the Super Rugby competition will be underway by the time Sanzar announces their decision. How will that alter the strategies of weaker teams like the Cheetahs and Lions, who will be effectively scrapping for survival in top-flight rugby?

If it’s a realistic option at this stage, the clash between these two teams in Round 1 could be vital. The Cheetahs and Lions may also look to rest their best players for matches against Australasian opposition, as they would know that success in the SA conference would be influential to their continued inclusion in Super Rugby.

Is it the right call to combine the two franchises? A lot of people claim the Cats concept didn’t work, and yet the Cats qualified for the Super Rugby play-offs in 2000 and 2001. The best finish for the Cheetahs since they split from the Lions is 10th (in 2006 and 2010) while the Lions are marginally worse with a best finish of 12th (in 2007 and 2009). Since 2006, both teams have failed to finish the league stage in the top half of the table.

The question that needs to be asked is whether either of these teams will ever challenge for a play-off place. It must be part of the deliberation process, although Saru will have other things to consider.

Where do they base the amalgamated franchise, Bloemfontein or Johannesburg? The Cheetahs’ administrators have also argued against the mooted reunion for many years as they feel the loss of a Super Rugby franchise will result in the death of the Free State Union. And considering the importance of this union in terms of the young talent it nurtures at age group level, the continued survival of Free State and Cheetahs rugby is important for South African rugby.

But including all six franchises in the 2013 competition could present a further problem. It would necessitate the revision of the league format, as it would be unfair for South Africa teams to play two extra games in their conference because of the impact it would have on the combined log and because of the toll it would take on the South African players. The Kings will play in 2013 and if Sanzar insists on keeping the Cheetahs and Lions too, they will need to come up with a new league format.

Going back to a round-robin system could have multiple benefits. This would require that each side plays 15 games during the league stage, just one less than is currently played under the conference-based league format. The play-off round would fall away and the best four sides would advance to the semi-finals. Overall the competition would be shorter allowing the best players to balance their Super Rugby obligations with Test commitments in June and in the Rugby Championship.

The conference-based format currently in place is flawed from a commercial and rugby view point. New Zealand especially is struggling to sell the derby concept to the Kiwi public while the dilution of talent in Australia means top teams like the Reds and Waratahs pick up easy five-pointers whenever they play the Melbourne Rebels. South Africa is at a disadvantage because they effectively play a mini-Currie Cup in their conference, and these games are typically physical and can result in injuries.

There are other reasons to celebrate the Kings’ inclusion pertaining to transformation and the further development of the South-Eastern Cape. But with regards to the format, their inclusion could force a change the competition certainly needs.