Let us start by acknowledging that the Kings are here to stay. Arguing about their right, or lack of, to participate in Super Rugby will serve no-one.
Secondly, we are sitting with an abnormal problem – forget who created it and how we got here, the most important thing to remember is to try and find a solution, and for this will require some clear heads and for emotion to be removed from the equation.
Can we stop this promotion/relegation rubbish?
I know many sports around the world uses a promotion/relegation system to determine which teams stays in the top league and which teams move down. In principle I have absolutely no problem with this system but it simply will not work for South African rugby in the context or form our competitions are set up and played in.
Super Rugby is determined on a franchise system, which represent unions and regions coming together as one team for Super Rugby. The feeder (lower league) competition to Super Rugby, the Currie Cup, is solely union based which makes it impossible for teams to be promoted and relegated on this principle.
If we are ever to entertain a promotion/relegation scenario for Super Rugby, drop the franchise concept and play a 14-team Currie Cup competition where the top 5 advance to Super Rugby.
Lions under fire
I don’t think it is a secret that the Lions are the team most likely to enter into some sort of compromise for 2013. Administratively they have been under enormous pressure over the last decade and with a record of less than 20 wins in Super Rugby since 2006, their on-field performances are also not helping their cause.
South African rugby cannot afford for a union like the Lions to carry on the way they are, not financially or through their on-field performances in Super Rugby – and I don’t think many will argue that the reason for their demise over the last decade had a lot to do with issues within the union itself so they also cannot really blame anyone else. That said, SA Rugby also cannot allow for the union to simply disappear.
Kings for more than a day
It is vitally important that SA Rugby has to change their approach from looking to invest their time, resources and money into the game of rugby as a whole rather than just a team or region. No matter what solution is found, or who needs to compromise, the solution should have the single purpose to ensure that the game of rugby is improved in all regions and for all teams.
Currently it is rumoured that the Kings will only have a 1-year guaranteed gig for Super Rugby 2013, after which the lowest ranking team on the log will play a promotion/relegation match against the team in waiting, or be automatically relegated. If this is going to be the approach, SA Rugby is wasting everyone’s time, including the supporters.
There is simply no-way in hell that the Kings can hope to put together a competitive Super Rugby team for 2013 with less than 8 months to prepare and contract players. Teams like the Cheetahs, Force and Rebels who have entered Super Rugby in recent years are still struggling with to record winning averages above 35%, with the Rebels as the most recent edition and only in their 2nd year not even achieving a 20% win record. This clearly illustrates that new teams, as the Kings will no doubt be, find it very tough in Super Rugby in the initial stages.
If SA Rugby is serious about creating a strong platform for the Kings to become competitive, the investment in the region needs to be secured or guaranteed for at least 3 years.
Give the Lions the right tools
To simply drop the Lions in the cold will hurt rugby in the long run. It is not only important to take note of the influence this may have on supporters and their non-support of SA Rugby and the new franchise, but also how sponsors, investors, equity partners and player agents will change their approach whenever they deal with unions in future.
With the threat of an annual relegation now a reality, and the fact that Super Rugby is a tough competition which can paralyse any team at any time with injuries, these organisations will no longer be interested in investing in any team or union on a long-term basis which could have serious financial consequences in future.
It is therefore imperative that SA Rugby support the Lions to ensure a strong rugby culture remains within the union and region and that they won’t be put in a position where they lose a multitude of players or sponsors but rather be in a position to return to Super Rugby at any time.
Of course most of the work will need to be done by the Lions themselves. It is simply unacceptable that a union which claimed to be the richest club in the world 15 years ago find themselves in the situation they do right now – and a break from Super Rugby might not be a bad idea to completely clean house and build a new, strong rugby culture in one of South Africa’s richest cities.
Going North not an option
There have been many suggesting that the Lions need to look North to secure a rugby future for themselves, basically leaving Southern Hemisphere rugby and join some European competition. Now apart from the organizational problems in getting into, or qualifying for those competition in a short space and time, alienating yourself from South African rugby structures will be a massive risk. Not only will you alienate yourself and your players from SA Rugby and the Springboks, you will also create a massive gap between you and your supporters who simply won’t be able to follow you.
The best way forward for the Lions will be for SA Rugby to help secure them a financial future as a union to continue to develop and contract players outside of Super Rugby, along with the option that the team itself is exposed to high level matches against international opposition and that their top (potential Springbok players) act as a reserve for all the other franchises actively participating in Super Rugby on a draft-type system.
The IRB Nations Cup, matches against all 5 participating South African Super Rugby franchises and the odd warm-up match against other SANZAR teams, matches against the Island teams and 2nd tier countries’ A teams will ensure that youngsters within the union can play a minimum of 10 matches a year against international opposition. Add entrenchment into South Africa’s top domestic competition, the Currie Cup, and the Lions will have all the tools to not only stay competitive but also contract up and coming youngsters through their system.
With financial security from SA Rugby for a specified amount of time, a draft system for their top players to be absorbed into participating franchises, exposure to international rugby and entrenchment in the top South African competition the Currie Cup, the Lions will be given all the tools to correct the wrongs of the last 10 to 15 years.
A merger will destroy two unions
We went down the road of merging two teams before, and while some might highlight its relative success for reaching the semi-finals at one stage, the long term damage it has done to both teams and unions are still felt today.
Not only will it be unfair for not one, but two teams to compromise to include the Kings, it is simply not a financially viable option. Super Rugby teams today struggle even when getting a full slice of the Newscorp money pie, if that pie suddenly has to be shared you will have not one, but two teams staring down the barrel.
This however does not mean that an existing team’s top players should or cannot be drafted into an existing franchise (at a cost to the union of course) but taking two identities and trying to merge them into one is not only a risk financially, but will struggle to win support from a deeply provincialistic South African rugby public.
Level playing field for all
As mentioned before the current situation is not a normal, or clear cut. For the Kings to work and serve the game in South Africa, SA Rugby needs to be serious when investing in them and do so for an extended period. Similarly, the investment in the Kings should not come at the expense of any other SA union or franchise which means whoever has to enter into a compromise needs to be looked after and supported to ensure their success, or return to success in a couple of years’ time will also be celebrated as a victory for rugby as a collective.
The Kings ‘deserve’ to be playing Super Rugby as much as the Lions do – that said, both teams also ‘deserve’ not to even see the light of Super Rugby given their respective current situations. But as mentioned above, this is not about entitlement or who deserves what, this is about taking a very real, and very serious problem and finding a solution to ensure rugby ends up the winner.
For once I hope SA Rugby, and all the parties or franchises involved in this situation will be able to sit back and look towards the long-term effect their decision of 2012 will have on the game, and not simply approach this to find a quick-fix solution to silence a couple of politicians or buy some more time.