Sanzar ball firmly in Saru's court
Sanzar's long-term goal for Super Rugby is to increase the number of teams participating. By 2015, the aim is to have 18, which would include a sixth South African franchise and a team each from Japan and Argentina. But, given the economic climate and likely absence of competition for broadcast rights, questions have to be asked about the model.
Slicing the financial cake 18 ways instead of 15 is a sure way to dilute the product and the first two weeks of the 2013 season have shown the follies of spreading talent too thinly. The first weekend showcased four Australian teams and Jake White's Brumbies did enough to suggest they will be competitive this year by beating the Reds 24-6. But the other three sides - the Force, the Rebels and the Reds - were, at times, woeful.
Last weekend, the Waratahs made their bow in the Australian conference and managed to lose to the Reds. The Brumbies made it two from two with a simple win over the Rebels and the Force conspired to lose a game they were winning at half time against the Kings in Port Elizabeth. It is the last game that has generated the most column inches in South Africa this week. Normally acidic critics have been pleased to give the Kings the benefit of the doubt, apparently for one reason alone: they won.
The Kings have been widely criticised for two things: first, for being a political anachronism and second, for being a too-weak conglomeration of players. And yet they won and, more significantly, 35000 people came through the turnstiles to watch them. Thirty-two thousand bought their tickets before match day and the rest made a late decision to be present at a historic occasion.
To put it into perspective, 44 000 watched the Bulls beat the Stormers at Loftus, meaning that two teams with serious title ambitions drew just 9000 more supporters than a team expected to finish last in the South African conference. In the greater scheme of things, Sanzar should be worried, because the crowds in week two were generally poor, especially in New Zealand, despite the quality of the rugby on display.
What it means is that, when the current Super Rugby sponsorship deal ends, the South African Rugby Union (Saru) will have some extremely strong bargaining tools. It is no secret that overtures are being made to draw South Africa north. France and England would like to build a new tournament to take the place of the Heineken Cup.
Saru may, in the end, decide to stay with Super Rugby, but on far more generous terms than currently exist. At the moment, each of the Sanzar unions receives a third of the sponsorship revenue. Saru might decide that is too low and demand a half instead, leaving the other partners to divide the remainder between themselves.
Cries of "blackmail" can be discerned even at this distance, but the fact of the matter is that New Zealand and Australia need South Africa far more than vice versa. The Hurricanes/Blues match, for instance, may have been fine entertainment, but there were precious few at the Cake Tin in Wellington to enjoy it. Twice as many went to the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium to watch the Kings.
It will probably be much the same this week. The big match is at Kings Park on Saturday, where the Sharks host the Stormers, but there may well be more people at Loftus to watch the Force lose to the Bulls. For it needs to be stressed that, if the Kings could keep the Force scoreless in the second half last week, things have the potential to get very ugly against the Bulls.
Consider this: the Force fixture list began with trips to Melbourne and Port Elizabeth. At a fragile franchise that has been going for only seven years, both would have been targeted as must-win fixtures in preseason team talks. Both were lost. That is not the sort of preparation deemed ideal for facing the blue machine.
If that fixture is likely to be embarrassingly one-sided, the game in Durban is not. The Stormers were installed as preseason favourites not just for the South African conference, but also for the title. It was not simply a poor kicking performance by Elton Jantjies last week that led to defeat, something that coach Allister Coetzee has no doubt emphasised in training this week.
The last thing the Stormers need is successive defeats to start their campaign, but the possibility cannot be discounted. They are up against the beaten finalists of 2012, the very team that knocked them out of last year's competition. Suggesting, as some have, that the psychological damage inflicted at Newlands was erased by Western Province winning the Currie Cup in Durban is rather to miss the point.
Coetzee has resisted the temptation to rush Peter Grant, newly returned from Japan, straight back into the starting line-up, and his opposite number, John Plumtree, has preferred the power of Jean Deysel to the finesse of Jacques Botes in the back row. Whatever happens, it is likely to take place in front of a large, passionate crowd and the standard of play should make a few franchises green with envy, particularly in Australia.