Battle royale for doomed table's scraps

The Kings and Lions clash on Saturday. (Gallo Images)

The Kings and Lions clash on Saturday. (Gallo Images)

It may seem a petty provincial scrap, but the second leg of the promotion/relegation series between the Lions and the Kings is actually the thin end of the wedge. The South African Rugby Union soured its relationship with South Africa New Zealand Australia Rugby (Sanzar) by demanding a sixth local franchise and now the chickens have come home to roost.

The result of the game may seem crucial to the participants and, for the record, the Kings lost by seven points at home last week so need to win by more than that at Ellis Park on Saturday.

But in reality, the two teams are fighting for a place in something that will probably not exist two years from now.

The global game of rugby union is about to be shaken from top to bottom in the biggest change since professionalism was introduced following the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Sanzar is currently considering at least three proposals for the Super Rugby competition, when the broadcasting rights are renegotiated in 2015. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the conference system, currently in its third year of existence. A major bugbear is the logistical madness presented by the playoff system.

Last year, the Sharks were forced to play three games in three weeks in three different time zones. This year, the Brumbies beat the Cheetahs in Canberra and the Bulls in Pretoria. Their reward was a trip halfway round the world to face the Chiefs in Hamilton in this week's final.

Hitherto, the Australian Rugby Union and its counterpart in New Zealand, the New Zealand Rugby Union, have put up with these complex travel schedules because South Africa brings more money to the table than they do. Now it seems that some influential power brokers are backing the growth of the sport in the East.

Two years ago, the International Rugby Board announced that Japan would host the World Cup in 2019. Critics of the decision lamented the relatively low level at which the game was played in the land of the rising sun. They also pointed out its geographical remoteness for those travelling from the Northern Hemisphere.

But it is not remote for Australia and New Zealand and, since the announcement, huge amounts of money have been made available to raise the level of play in the Japanese domestic leagues.

The result has been an exodus of star players, particularly from Sanzar countries. The money on offer has been so great that players in the prime of their careers have turned their backs on representing their countries in exchange for a lifetime of financial security.

And so a large gamble is being seriously considered. It is a gamble that suggests the economic downturn that has engulfed South Africa will, for the foreseeable future, bring an end to this country's status as the Sanzar cash cow. Better by far to hitch your wagon to the Asian Tiger to ride out the economic storm and exchange Pretoria and Cape Town for Tokyo and Kobe.

It is not all doom and gloom, however. Plans are far advanced for South African sides to join a new competition in the northern Hemisphere. Some influential powerbrokers up north have come to the conclusion that the Heineken Cup has reached its sell-by date. The panacea is a tournament involving sides from England, France and South Africa, the three wealthiest unions in the world right now.

The 11-hour flights between north and south are far preferable to the long hauls across the time zones currently on offer. The losers would be the Celtic nations - Ireland, Wales and Scotland. All three would have to find new ways to fund their domestic game. It would also nip in the bud the burgeoning reputations of Italy and Argentina, although the latter have been guaranteed continuing participation in the Rugby Championship.

Talking of which, the Springbok squad for the four-nation extravaganza is due to be announced this weekend. Coach Heyneke Meyer has a nettle to grasp, precisely because of what looms on the horizon. Seven squad members from the June international window matches are moving overseas with immediate effect, with France and Japan the destinations of choice. Meyer has to decide whether that will prejudice their chances of playing for South Africa.

He has an inkling of how it could work, because Ruan Pienaar (Ulster) and Francois Louw (Bath) have been part of his squad for a year. Indeed, there are rumours that Louw has been earmarked as the next Springbok captain, when current incumbent Jean de Villiers either steps down or is dropped.

Bryan Habana remains without peer as an international wing and the idea that his move to France might signal an end to his record-breaking career seems crass.

But players are being put under increasing pressure to retire from international rugby as a quid pro quo for large club or provincial salaries. How many people would have envisaged such an outcome on that fateful June day in 1995 when amateurism shuffled off into history?



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