JON CARDINELLI writes that with the merger option quashed and the six-franchise option unlikely, South African teams may be forced to employ conservative tactics in order to secure Super Rugby survival.
Gary Gold put it best when he described how club rugby differs in the northern and southern hemispheres. ‘In the south they play to win, whereas in the north they play not to lose,’ he said, citing his experience as a coach in competitions like the English Premiership and Super Rugby.
Gold explained that the relegation factor influenced the style of play in England, while the Sanzar nations could afford to be more adventurous as the results had no bearing on their continued involvement in the south’s premier competition.
But that could change in 2012, at least for South Africa’s Super Rugby teams.
Saru is currently wrestling with the problem of fitting six franchises into five slots. They’ve ruled out the possibility of merging two franchises, and while they hope to convince Sanzar to accommodate six SA teams, the 2013 tournament is unlikely to differ to that of 2012. The existing franchises won’t like the idea of relegation, but considering the contractual obligations, there may be no alternative.
The final decision will only be announced next month, but we already know more than we did at this time last week. There will be no amalgamation similar to that of the Cats, and there are those at the Cheetahs and Lions who will laud this decision as a massive victory. But now that the merger option has been ruled out, another scrap will begin.
History will show that of SA’s five franchises, the Cheetahs and Lions have fared the worst at Super Rugby level. The Cheetahs have performed consistently at domestic level while the Lions recently won the Currie Cup, but this has never been a true indicator of Super Rugby aptitude. Going into the 2012 competition, the Cheetahs and Lions will be the South African underdogs once again.
At the start of 2012, both sides may have held lofty ambitions of finishing in the top half of the table or even sneaking into the play-offs. Now that relegation could become a possibility, they may have to alter game plans and adjust priorities and goals to ensure that come the end of the competition, they don’t receive the chop.
Of course, it is yet to be determined whether the relegation option will be adopted and, if it is, how it would be implemented.
It could be that Saru decides to stage a relegation series after the Super Rugby season, in which case the respective teams’ Super Rugby survival would be riding on the result of two or three games. That option wouldn’t make much sense, however, as it would take place at the end of a grueling six-month competition and both teams would be without their Boks due to Rugby Championship commitments. It would also lead to the bizarre situation where coaches save their best players for the relegation/promotion series rather than risk them in the last rounds of the Super Rugby tournament itself.
If an automatic relegation option was installed, in other words if the worst South African side made way for the Southern Kings in 2013, the question would be thrown back at Saru: Why wasn’t the decision made before the 2012 competition started?
The coaches could even take it a step further and ask why the decision wasn’t made before the pre-season when tactics and other plans are implemented. These are relevant questions, because as Gold once intimated with his description of the northern competitions, the threat of relegation can alter a team’s goals and thus its style of play.
The current laws prescribe a move towards percentage play, and while the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers all differ slightly in game plan, they do prize territory above all else. The Cheetahs and Lions, while traditionally the worst SA teams in terms of results, have often employed a more expansive approach to the game. It has sometimes made for entertaining rugby and on occasion has brought them success, but how will the prospect of relegation alter the mindset in the respective camps? Results will no longer be crucial in terms of shooting for a play-off place; they may be vital for survival.
The Cheetahs showed their conservative side when they played in Cape Town nine days ago, which may suggest they are already starting to think along these lines. The Lions entertained in the 2011 Currie Cup with an all-out-attack, but it was clear that John Mitchell has installed some balance. It could be that the Lions play more to the laws in the coming season, and in doing so, improve their chances of staying in the top flight.
The Super Rugby race will be closely contested, as the length of the competition adds to the challenge.There may also be a competition within the competition as the South African teams scrap for survival.
The Bulls, Sharks and Stormers won’t take the traditionally weaker sides in their conference lightly, as they won’t want to fall into a potential relegation zone either. This could mean that the big three SA teams are also effected when it comes to selection and playing style.
Saru will announce its decision at the end of March, and if a relegation system is favoured, it will prompt a scrap that could transform the South African psyche into something resembling the mindset of European clubs up north.