Empty promises

The Southern Kings will only see Super Rugby if Saru makes some strong decisions and there is unity between the three provincial unions that make up the franchise.

Not even Cheeky Watson was surprised when Melbourne was awarded the 15th Super Rugby franchise for 2011.

‘I always said that we didn’t have high hopes of beating Melbourne, so I’m not disappointed at all,’ says the EPRFU president. ‘However, we are still fighting for a South African franchise like we were right from the beginning.’

Sanzar’s independent arbitrators, former All Blacks captain David Kirk and retired New Zealand High Court Judge, the Hon Barry Paterson QC, said the Southern Kings’ proposal was more advanced than Melbourne’s in various aspects. The Kings’ business and financial planning, organisational structure and governance, and their ‘rugby readiness’ was better, but the Port Elizabeth-based franchise’s geographical location meant they couldn’t realistically play in the Australian conference due to practical and financial reasons as they would’ve had to travel across the Indian Ocean twice for matches. Sanzar would also have suffered a loss of revenue (predicted to be R137 million over five years) if a non-Australian franchise was awarded the expansion slot.

The deciding factors were always against the Kings, but Watson is still critical of the final decision. ‘It was short-sighted. But we’re committed to transformation and we’ll pursue our goal of obtaining a franchise.’

Yet again the future looks bleak for South Eastern Cape rugby. A Super Rugby franchise has been on Saru’s agenda since 2003, yet the Kings are set to go the same way as the Spears before them.

The in-fighting between the three unions that make up the Kings – Eastern Province, Border, and South Western Districts – hasn’t helped their cause either. In January 2009, SWD were snubbed by Saru as former union president Stag Cronjé wasn’t informed of any plans to form the Kings. The Eagles were part of the Spears project, but weren’t invited to the original meeting – which was attended by Saru president Regan Hoskins and acting MD Andy Marinos – and Cronjé didn’t have any idea there were plans to form a new franchise in the region.

He was understandably upset and eventually SWD were included, but in May they made a landmark decision. When private equity firm Bunker Capital bought a 50% share in Eagles rugby, which was previously owned by Saru, they became the first union in South Africa to be privately owned.

This move has caused even more problems in what has always been an unstable relationship between the three unions, with Watson and Cronjé disagreeing on various issues.

‘The tender document spelt out that the differing views of the three Kings’ stakeholders was a major issue,’ says Watson. ‘We have to reach an agreement between the three provinces. SWD are worried about the management of their players – they have a sponsor committed to them – and they’re concerned how the players will be utilised if they play for the Kings.’

While private ownership appears to be the way forward for South African rugby, Bunker Capital’s involvement has essentially been another stumbling block for the South Eastern Cape franchise.

‘The issue of players was the main sticking point and the Eagles raised it at President’s Council meetings,’ explains Cronjé, who was ousted as SWD president in December after a bitter power struggle within the union. ‘SWD have a private company that is pumping money in. It came in to build a team to make the Eagles successful in the Currie Cup and Super Rugby in future. It’s difficult for the Eagles, as now they have to lend their players to a team that they aren’t really part of.

‘That’s why SWD were uncomfortable. EP and Border aren’t involved with a private shareholder. The Kings will have to find another solution. SWD have come far down the road; they have their own high-performance centre. From 2010 they’ll be able to retain their players, and maybe bring new guys in.’

SWD aren’t happy to let their players represent the franchise, while the Kings will also struggle to recruit players or appoint a director of rugby if they have no franchise. EP made a few acquisitions throughout the Currie Cup while Alan Solomons was the consulting director of rugby, but relevant parties won’t commit permanently if the Kings have no clear future.

Watson says: ‘It does make recruiting a lot more challenging for us. We believe there are players available and as 16 June [when the Kings played their first and only match, against the British & Irish Lions] showed us, they can be found on short notice. We just can’t take ages to get them here, and we can’t wait for them to come to us.’

After the Kings were rejected by Sanzar for the 15th Super Rugby spot, Hoskins promised it would not be the end of the road for them. He even went so far as to say that the Kings are Saru’s ‘No 1 priority’. Due to the obvious differences in opinion stemming from SWD’s private funding, Saru was meant to organise a meeting with the EP, SWD and Border presidents to plot the way forward. But two-and-a-half weeks after Melbourne was announced as the 15th franchise, Saru still couldn’t get the parties together for a meeting. Saru will have to take the lead, but by early December the unions were still waiting, as Mark Alexander, Saru’s deputy president who runs the Kings project, was in Europe for the Springboks’ year-end tour.

Cronjé says: ‘Co-operation between the three unions is not where it should be at the moment. That’s life. They have to sit down and sort out the problems. They need to put agreements in place to see what each union needs to do to make this a success.

‘That must happen as soon as possible. SWD want to know what each province’s role is. EP, Border and SWD all have something to offer, but they need to put everything into one pot and work on it. The Eagles are committed to making this work, as they have been involved with the franchise since 2005.

‘It would be a huge boost if the region had a franchise. At the moment the Eagles have nothing to offer big-name players as they have no Super Rugby.’

The Kings hope to join the Currie Cup Premier Division in 2010, if they can sort out the player issues and achieve unity. Their entry could be used as a stepping stone to oust the worst performing South African Super Rugby side in the 2011 Super 15.

Marinos stated that the only way the Kings could get into the Currie Cup Premier Division was via a President’s Council vote. But the presidents of Griquas, the Pumas and the other smaller unions – or the Lions and Cheetahs, who could possibly be relegated from the Super 14 – are unlikely to hand them entry to that division through this vote. The power of this council has long been viewed as problematic, and it’s causing headaches for the Kings.

Watson, who is part of the President’s Council, has called on Saru to do something more drastic than relying on the 14 presidents.

‘Saru needs to take more of a leading role and not only rely on a vote, for the simple reason that they took a tough decision when they allowed Natal into the Currie Cup in the late-80s,’ he says. ‘That was a great business decision, and they’ve reaped the rewards.

‘The fact is that young black players after the ages of 15 to 20 – and there are many – are disappearing like mist in the morning sun. Why? Because EP, Border and SWD, who provide a large number of black players, are the only three provinces in the country who don’t have a franchise.

‘In the South Eastern Cape, we don’t have a carrot to dangle to our younger players, like the other unions have. Saru has to show strong leadership to have an impact on South African rugby.’

Many ‘ifs’ need to happen before the Kings stand a chance of entering Super Rugby in 2011, but the alternative is the next mooted Super Rugby expansion set for 2013, where it is believed that 18 teams could take part.

Cronjé says: ‘To be competitive in Super Rugby is a process. You have to start with younger players and four or five years down the line you’ll get results.

‘Playing in 2013 is a very, very good possibility. That’s a more suitable option as it gives the Kings time.’

Watson disagrees: ‘No, that’s not the best case scenario. If we don’t get in now, who can guarantee us it will happen then? If we take the view of just waiting for things to happen, we could end up waiting until 2030 for a franchise.’

Watson says he will be disappointed if the South Eastern Cape still doesn’t have a Super Rugby franchise by late 2010. The Kings have hardly ruled the rugby scene since their formation in 2009, but 2010 is the year
to see if they really are Saru’s top priority.

‘I hope that is the case,’ says Watson in response to Hoskins’ comments that the Kings are top of Saru’s agenda. ‘Anyone can speculate, but the veracity of that statement can only be determined if there is a franchise up and running in the near future.’

By Grant Ball

– This article first appeared in the Jan-Feb issue of SA Rugby magazine. Click here to subscribe