Saru seeking lifeline for Lions

The South African Rugby Union’s leadership says they have committed to finding alternative competitions for the Lions to participate in, including exploring the possibility of their inclusion in the European Cup.

On Thursday it was announced that the Lions would be the franchise to drop out of Super Rugby in 2013 in order for the Kings to be accommodated. This will leave the Johannesburg franchise without a high level of competition from the start of 2013 through to August, at which stage they’ll have a promotion-relegation play-off against the last-placed side in the South African conference.

The implications of this situation for the Lions are wide-ranging, the most significant of which is that their best players, many of whom are only have a couple of months to run on their contracts, will seek to play elsewhere.

Keo.co.za can confirm that the Lions’ leadership has already engaged their senior players on the idea of a loan to another franchise for 2013, in a bid to retain them. Whether this ploy succeeds remains to be seen.

Saru, represented by president Oregan Hoskins and CEO Jurie Roux at a press briefing in Cape Town, has insisted it is working to increase the options available to the Lions and their players.

‘The amount of work that went into trying to trying to find alternatives – entry into competitions in Europe, trying to get new structures in place [in Super Rugby, that is, changing the format to include an additional team] – just trying to get a better position for the franchise that was going to fall out, was continuous over the last six months,’ Roux said.

‘We reached the point where we couldn’t postpone this decision any longer but that doesn’t mean we can’t still find some form of competition for the Lions. That will be a tough task and maybe it will be a downgraded competition. We’ve been speaking to IRB about possible inclusion into the European Cup, the Nations Cup and Pacific Cup, just to provide an opportunity. We’ll even hope that somehow we can convince Sanzar that whatever [expansion] is happening post 2015 can be brought forward to 2014. We’d need to convince the broadcasters and partners and we’ll certainly try to at our next meeting.’

The financial implications for the Lions are self-evident, with a loss of gate, advertising and merchandising revenue (among other income streams) to seriously affect their bottom line. They already find themselves in a perilous financial state following the Guma Group’s withdrawal from the franchise and lengthy legal battles with franchise partners, the Pumas and Leopards.

However, Roux said they were open to discussing means of assisting the franchise financially.

‘We’ve got an agreed upon funding model that was decided in November 2009. It includes all six franchises. That runs through to 2015, so irrespective of whether you are playing Super Rugby or not you are still getting your share of the broadcasting revenue,’ he said.

‘No decision has been made on any additional funding. We need to look at how we can assist at keeping the Lions running so that they are able to compete should they win promotion in 2013.’

Roux also didn’t rule out the possibility of the Lions negotiating a merger with another franchise, although this is a highly unlikely scenario.

‘Initially there was a lot of discussion about the possible merger or whoever dropped out would go into a merger with the Kings for the rest of the period of the contract. [If] that happens is up to the Lions and the Kings. They are official franchises and should run their business accordingly,’ he said.

Roux added that the possibility that the Lions could challenge the decision legally, but said he hoped that wouldn’t happen.

Asked to assess their leadership on a saga that became incredibly messy and embarrassing for South African rugby, Hoskins said: ‘South African rugby is a tough terrain. We have passionate constituencies and it is always a more challenging environment than our Australasian partners. We’ve got to do the best we can.

‘We’ve done a lot of soul searching around this. The issue of the Spears goes back to 2005 so until now we’ve tried. Under all these circumstances it is the best we could do.’

By Ryan Vrede