The Southern Kings first foray into Super Rugby has certainly polarised rugby supporters in South Africa and it about time that the Executive Council of SARU takes responsibility for the lead roles which they have played in this disaster.
Most of the facts of this farce are well known to rugby followers in the country, but are well worth repeating. Public sentiment has been extremely negative towards the Southern Kings and their CEO Cheeky Watson, but the reality is that they did not create this situation and are the pawns in this game. The demise of premier division rugby under the leadership of the former Eastern Province Rugby Union had more to do with the socio-political changes in the region and within the Eastern Province Rugby Football Union itself rather than the lack of quality players being produced in their schooling system. A quick look around at the top six Currie Cup Unions will bear this out, with many products from schools within the Kings’ catchment area playing professional rugby.
SARU committed to National Government to bring top flight rugby to the region nearly ten years ago in order to develop the massive black player base in the region in support of their transformation goals, but never had any form of strategic or coherent plan to implement this. The logical step would have been to create a seven team Premier Division in the Currie Cup, with the Kings being the seventh team, allowing them the time to develop a competitive side, build their Academy and secure sponsorships. Knowing that they had committed themselves to including the region in Super Ruby eventually and that their time was running out in the eyes of Government due to the Presidents’ Council being unable to agree to the way forward as that would be to the detriment of their own interests, they made the unprecedented decision to promote their First Division Champions straight into Super Rugby. The Johannesburg based Lions were therefore cast out into the rugby wilderness.
Whilst this decision might be viewed as SARU fulfilling their obligations to the region and Government, one has to seriously doubt their long term intentions with this decision, as well as their understanding of the consequences. The Presidents’ Council had every opportunity to ratify their decision in July 2012, but chose to delay announcing their decision until later in the year. The delay in this announcement unfortunately significantly impacted on the Kings’ ability to sign players who were at the end of the contract cycle as these players had their own livelihood to protect and re-signed with their current unions in order to remain employed. The appeal by Cheeky Watson to SARU to allow the Kings to field up to four foreign players in their match day squad is not a new one and a more proactive Union such as the Australian Rugby Union has made this concession to the Melbourne Rebels in order to allow them to be reasonably competitive whilst developing local talent. Watson’s request was denied and one has to question whether this decision was made with the July promotion/relegation game in mind as opposed to the 14 games the Kings will play in Super Rugby in 2013. It is interesting to note that not one member of the SARU Executive had the courtesy to attend the Kings debut game in Super Rugby. The Kings have played their part by contracting whatever players they could, appointing Alan Solomons as Director of Rugby and have established a Rugby Academy under Robbie Kempson. The Madibaz from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University have slowly developed from the whipping boys of the Varsity Cup to a reasonably competitive unit.
The one outlying factor which has not been discussed in any detail yet is the reaction of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Sport should the Kings be relegated in August. The SARU Presidents Council will have great difficulty in explaining the bulk of their actions in front of any Commission and they have effectively set themselves up to allow for further political intervention, which is a scenario any rugby lover in this country would prefer to avoid. The Portfolio Committee has been remarkably quiet about this farce over the last year, a sign which this writer interprets as ominous.
The promotion/relegation series which SARU has instituted also has some inherent pitfalls which have yet to be considered. A fresh Lions squad will be challenging the Kings for their spot in the Super Rugby competition inclusive of their star players who are currently on loan to other unions. Many of these players are currently negotiating contracts with these unions or have committed to them and will thus not be available to the Lions next year. The Kings will be at the end of a gruelling Super Rugby competition and will then have to face a fresh and hungry Lions unit in a do or die battle. It is not impossible that this becomes an annual issue, with the roles being reversed. The only escape from this situation would be to secure an additional berth in the competition, further diluting the quality of the franchises.
The perversion of how this is set up is that whilst the Kings are still competing in the Super Rugby competition, the Currie Cup First Division has kicked off and the Kings’ home union, Eastern Province, are attempting to field a team strong enough to compete and not lose too many log points before their Super Rugby players are available to play. This quest has already started off badly with a loss at home to their main rivals the Steval Pumas. The main issue at play here is they need to top the league in order to be able to play in the promotion/relegation game at the back end of the season for the right to play in the Currie Cup. A difficult task without your top players, giving a team like the Puma’s a head start.
The time has possibly come for all rugby lovers to understand that this scenario is not of the Southern Kings or Lions making and public hatred and derision should not be aimed at them, but rather at the architects of this flimsy house of cards – the President’s Council of SARU.