We have all known for some time that Super Rugby swells to 18 teams next year but it will probably only be when the Rugby World Cup hangover lifts and attention drifts towards the revamped competition that South Africans will digest how severely they have been shafted by those old trans-Tasman cousins, Australia and New Zealand.
For the 19 years of the continually evolving competition, South Africans have whined about the travel factor, quite legitimately, too, but to be fair, geographical realities are what they are – the Kiwis and Aussies are a short flight from each other and the SA teams are half a world away from both.
But the new format, which is severely skewed in favour of the Australasian teams, was fashioned in the SANZAR boardroom by representatives from all three countries, and it is no surprise that our governing body has not been shouting the result from the rooftops. We have hardly heard a word, but that will change …
In essence, three new teams have been added to Super Rugby – the Kings from Port Elizabeth, a team from Argentina (as yet unnamed) and a Japanese side that will be coached by the venerable Eddie Jones and is currently running a competition to come up with a suitable name.
The two new foreign sides have been added to the SA Conference which has now split into two tiers – three SA teams plus the Japs in one Conference and three SA teams plus the South Americans in the other. The New Zealand and Australasian Conferences remain precisely as they were in 2015 – untouched by the expansion and they will continue to have their prized full house of home and away derbies, which are the big crowd pullers in all three countries.
What in effect has happened is that the Kiwis and Aussies would have said to the Saru delegation: “Fine, we hear your desperate need for a sixth team (the Kings) but then you take the other newcomers too. We are not tampering with our Conferences.”
Which is nonsense, but Saru obviously felt they had to concede because getting the Kings back into Super Rugby (without having to relegate an existing team) simply had to be done, whatever the cost. The Kings have been a political hot potato for over a decade, going back to the days when they were known as the Spears and tried to sue Saru for broken promises of Super Rugby inclusion.
And when the Kings finally cracked the nod, they performed admirably, winning a few games and were competitive throughout, only to narrowly lose a subsequent promotion-relegation match against the Lions. Out in the cold once more, and questions once again in parliament about Saru’s dereliction of duty towards the black rugby power base that is the Eastern Cape.
The unfortunate reality is that the SA challenge is likely to be fatally watered down by the addition of three teams that are sure to occupy the last three places on the overall log. Argentina’s best players are signed to European clubs, so it is hard to see that their team will be too much stronger than the side they had in the Vodacom Cup last year (it will be a ‘national’ development team, not a champion province) and the Japanese team will likewise be a collaboration of all-sorts. It is owned by the JRU rather than one of the rich corporations which bankroll the local tournaments.
And they have serious logistical problems, notably the fact that their country is so isolated that it is unfeasible for teams to travel there for their SA Conference games. So the Japanese side has agreed to play half its home games in Singapore. So gone are the days when an SA Conference derby meant, for instance, the Bulls versus the Stormers in Pretoria, it now could now also mean the Sharks v the Tokyo Kamikazes in Singapore.
The Japanese team will struggle to attract substantial crowds at their foreign base and their games will be in the middle of the night for Japanese TV audiences.
And then there is the poor old Kings. They were wonderfully prepared by wily Alan Solomons before their 2013 debut and while they still have some good people there, including the determined Robbie Kempson, the portents are not good.
Just this week former All Black Carlos Spencer resigned from his coaching position at the Kings because he had not been paid. He says the players have not been paid either for recent matches.
According to Spencer, the Kings went ahead with a friendly against a weak Bulls team (and lost) at the weekend but only after peacemaking messages from president Daniel “Cheeky” Watson that wages would be paid because a sponsorship said to be worth about R200 million is imminent.
According to the New Zealand Herald, he phoned all the players before the match to explain the financial shortfalls and promised they would be paid up over the weekend and that the Kings would also invest in new players. Spencer, who was contracted to the Kings until the end of 2018, said this did not happen and he quite possibly sees disaster written on the wall for a franchise that has been horribly mistreated by the South African Rugby Union, who simply have not known what to do with their “problem child”.
Cheeky Watson, though, is adamant that Spencer’s departure has nothing to do with the fortunes of the Kings but can we really take seriously the promise he made this week in the press: “Don’t worry. We’re bringing in a big-hitter (presumably at coaching level) and we’re going to turn this union around.”
But the major gripe from South Africa is going to come when it is grasped that there is a significant slant towards New Zealand and Australia in terms of qualification for the play-offs – five teams from the NZ/Australia pool are guaranteed qualifiers while only three teams will advance from the SA conferences.
by Mike Greenaway
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