Our old favourite, Spiro Zavos believes the Super Rugby conference system is a winning recipe, and that everything must be done in order to stop the South Africans wrecking it.
THE Australian and New Zealand unions beware, the South Africans are coming to make a mess of the Super Rugby tournament.
On March 17, a delegation of powerful South African rugby and political figures, Brand de Villiers (Bulls), Kevin de Klerk (Lions), Brian van Zyl (Sharks), SARU president Oregan Hoskins, deputy president Mark Alexander, SARU’s chief executive, Jurie Roux, and Cheeky Watson (Southern Kings), will arrive in Australia and New Zealand to push for the Southern Kings as South Africa’s sixth Super Rugby team. The delegation wants to scrap the existing, excellent format of three conferences of five teams for a 16-team tournament, with each side playing each other once and then going into a finals series.
The five South African teams have threatened to pull out of next year’s tournament if one them is dropped in favour of the Southern Kings. They have taken the attitude that they will all hang in together to prevent one of them hanging separately. Most informed opinion in South Africa is that the Lions deserve to be sacrificed for the sake of political correctness in South African rugby. But instead of calling the bluff of the teams, SARU is determined to wreck a hard-won format that is proving to be a winner in terms of crowd numbers and television ratings.
The push for the Kings is all about South African politics. The team is supposed to be an elite side for players of colour in the Eastern Cape region. Unfortunately, the side has a poor playing record and is nowhere near Super Rugby standard. The British and Irish Lions thrashed them, and they cannot win their way into the top tier of the Currie Cup. The side is essentially a political rather than a rugby construct. SARU, it will be remembered, tried to force this side on to Melbourne as Australia’s fifth team.
A key name in all of this politicking mess is that of Watson. He was a hero of the anti-apartheid movement when he played in the non-white leagues in South Africa. This meant that he bravely gave up any chance of becoming a Springbok. His story was so compelling that David Williamson was commissioned to write a screenplay of his life. An informed South African source, and someone who worked with the ANC to bring about the end of the apartheid system, has told me that Watson is overplaying his hand in this matter. He is absolutely determined to get the Southern Kings into the Super Rugby tournament while Nelson Mandela is still alive. The imperative driving this is totally political.
According to the SANZAR boss, Greg Peters, the Kings matter is a row that needs to be resolved in South Africa, by the South African authorities. Correct. The feisty chief executive of the ARU, John O’Neill, has pointed out that SANZAR is in the second year of a broadcasting deal involving a five-year, 15-team competition. Changing horses in midstream is not possible. Again correct. Now we need the embattled NZRU, which was rocked this week by the Otago Rugby Union going into receivership, to make a similarly strong commitment to the existing tournament format.
One reason for this intransigence in face of the South African wreckers is that the first round of this year’s Super Rugby tournament demonstrated the value of the local derby matches. The captain of the Crusaders, Kieran Read, likened the match against the Blues to a Test match in its intensity. South Africa’s Bulls-Sharks contest drew a crowd of more than 46,000 and was played in a similar spirit. And what could have been more exciting than the Reds winning in State-of-Origin style with a breakaway try when the Waratahs unleashed their “new attacking kicking tactic” (an oxymoronic ploy in my opinion) to turn over the ball in the last play of the match?
Only one match in the round was not a derby (Stormers-Hurricanes) and that was the only one won by more than seven points.