Mitchell backs Cats solution

John Mitchell says Saru’s handling of the Southern Kings saga has been poor and unfair and believes a Cats merger will be the best way forward.

It’s been four months and 14 days since Saru dropped the bomb that the Kings will play Super Rugby in 2013. While the decision is great news for the Eastern Cape region, the fact that the national union made this decision without a solution as to how all six franchises will be accommodated next season, and its delay in announcing one, has caused more harm than good.

Saru has asked Sanzar for permission to enter all six teams next year. But this request was declined because of Super Rugby’s broadcasting commitment to the current 15-team conference format that only expires in 2015. Saru then planned a rescue mission trip to Australasia in March and put together a delegation that it believed could convince its partners to reconsider. However, this never materialised.

This lack of progress has caused a lot of speculation within the South African rugby fraternity and media. There have been talks of a relegation process, with the Lions picked as the likely option for the drop because of their poor Super Rugby record, while there also suggestions that the Lions and Cheetahs should play as the Cats again, like they did from 1998-2005.

Saru has set a date on 17 May to meet with all local franchises to discuss the Kings debacle. However, Lions head coach John Mitchell has criticised the union for their poor handling of the matter.

‘As a national body, Saru should be more transparent about their thought process,’ Mitchell told keo.co.za from New Zealand. ‘It should have made a decision on how the Kings will be accommodated by now so that all the parties can plan ahead. It [the criticism] is not something one wants to talk about, but Saru needed to be clearer and it is being unfair on all the teams, players and management being speculated about.’

So what is the best way forward, from a Lions point of view? Mitchell believes the Cheetahs and Lions should merge to create a franchise that will boast quality depth and compete for the title.

‘South African rugby should be entering teams into Super Rugby that have a strong chance of winning the competition. As separate franchises, the Cheetahs and Lions have struggled, especially when there are injuries. If we had to combine teams, we would have a squad strong enough to deal with issues and that will be capable of winning on a regular basis.’

The initial Cats initiative broke down because of financial and logistic issues. Both teams complained about living out of hotels, being away from their families, while the two unions had to share the profits accumulated. There is also the question about appointing a management team.

Mitchell argued that these issues can be resolved.

‘The problems you mention are just hurdles in the way of the best solution. If the necessary input is given by both teams, we can build a strong community and culture, and appoint strong leaders to take this merger forward.

‘We have a similar structure in New Zealand, where players from different provinces – sometimes five different teams – have to play as one Super Rugby franchise. This is what I experienced when playing for the Chiefs, and look how they’re doing now. The Cats were also once successful, so there are no reasons why they can’t achieve similar results if the necessary work is done.

‘In terms of management, we have to offer the player the best resources to work with. So a management team that consists of coaches from both the Lions and Cheetahs will have to be drawn up. I won’t mind working with the Cheetahs coaches.’

In the past, Cheetahs CEO Harold Verster and other management have argued strongly against the possibility of merging with the Lions. But considering the threat of relegation and Saru hosting a meeting with all South African franchise next week, Verster did not rule out the possibility of an amalgamation.

‘We are joining Saru and the other franchises for a meeting on 17 May,’ Verster also told this site. ‘We will not comment on this matter until we have discussed the situation with the other parties. Once there is more clarity, we can speak about possible steps forward.’

By Gareth Duncan