Cheetahs boss Harold Verster must be lauded for investing in the future and not being caught up in the uncontrollable of the past.
Super Rugby’s expansion to 18 teams, which included six South African teams, has not worked. The competition’s future is in reduced numbers, which meant South Africa was always going to lose a team or two.
I’ve long held the view that South African rugby wasn’t strong enough to have six competitive teams in Super Rugby and the ongoing collective failures in respect to South Africa’s Super Rugby challenge supports such a view.
It doesn’t mean South Africa doesn’t have six professional teams capable of playing in international tournaments.
Super Rugby is stronger than, for example, the Pro 12. The top eight teams in Super Rugby is a level up from the top eight in Pro 12, but it doesn’t make the Pro 12 a secondary competition. The Pro 12, for me, sits between Super Rugby and Currie Cup in playing standard.
The South African Rugby Union’s decision to reduce from six to four is the right one. The debate was whether the Kings and Cheetahs were deserving of exclusion. There can be an argument for their inclusion and one for their exclusion. Similarly the Bulls and Lions.
Historically the Lions’s Super Rugby winning record is in the low 30 percent but the franchise has been South Africa’s stand out in the last two years.
The Bulls recently have been a disaster but historically (with three Championship titles) the Bulls have achieved the most success in the competition.
The Stormers and Sharks have been the most consistent performers on the field, without ever winning the trophy and the Stormers home crowd support (an average of 30 000 a game) is the best among all teams in the competition’s history.
The Stormers and Sharks were always safe from exclusion and the Lions and Bulls commercially make a stronger case than the Cheetahs and Kings.
There could easily be counter arguments to why the Cheetahs and Kings should have stayed, but the reality is both franchises will be healthier playing in an international competition in which they can succeed, as opposed to making up the numbers in Super Rugby.
Verster’s Cheetahs could have opted the legal route and involved South African rugby in a protracted and costly court battle. This would have only added to division and potential destruction in the South African game. Verster and his regional leadership have done what is right for the strength and sanity of the South African game of rugby – and that is ground breaking.
The Kings, given SARU’s financial investment in the region, didn’t have any strength in fighting any national decision. The Cheetahs did but it would have been shortsighted and individuals would have won a fight but South African rugby would have lost the sporting war to once again make this country’s rugby a superpower.
The pragmatic and rational approach has been taken. Verster has found inspiration in the future and not become embittered because of the past.
Don’t underestimate how revolutionary this is among South African Rugby Union’s leadership. It is another step out of the shadows of 2016.
Rassie Erasmus’s appointment as SA Director of Rugby adds a dimension to the strength of the South African national structures. The MTN sponsorship adds to the commercial strength of South African rugby and having two international competitions for South Africa’s six professional franchises is a strength and not a weakness to the overall playing fabric of the professional game in South Africa.
There has never been a darker year in South African rugby than 2016 and there will never be any justification for what happened and how it happened.
But solace must be found in how 2017 is shaping, through national rugby coaching appointments and national rugby decisions. Equally the new commercial partners who are aligning with the potential of a stronger South Africa in rugby.
Verster was quoted as saying that the board of the Cheetahs reviewed the future and was positive about the prospect of appearing in alternative international competitions.
‘It is the start of a new chapter for rugby in our region and in South Africa. It will allow the Cheetahs to carve out a new and prominent place on the rugby map in South Africa, as well as internationally,’ said Verster. ‘It is an exciting challenge for our players, supporters and commercial partners.’
South African rugby traditionally has been divided because of provincialism but finally there is a tangible that speaks to future of the national game because SA Rugby will be healthier with six professional franchises playing in different international competitions.