The talent is spread too thin

As we head towards the sharp end of the inaugural Super 14, it is hard to ignore the fact that the usual suspects are lining up for a tilt at the semifinals. Adding an extra franchise to Australia and South Africa has done nothing to alter the bald fact that no one can beat the Crusaders, home or away.

It is a moot point whether, by expanding the Super 12, Sanzar (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia Rugby) intended to strengthen the competition or merely to spread it further afield. When the idea was first put forward, plenty of critics pointed to the lack of business sense in slicing the sponsors’ pie 14 ways instead of 12.

The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) had more reason to create a new team than the South African Rugby Union (Saru).
The success of the Wallabies in the 1999 World Cup and narrow defeat in the final of the 2003 version on home soil had given the union code a chance to compete on equal ground with league for the first time in Australian history.

Moreover, a huge influx of union-loving South African émigrés to Western Australia, estimated to be more than 50 000, suggested Perth as the ideal venue for the new franchise. Add into the mix a clever marketing campaign and the acquisition of a former, highly successful, All Black coach in John Mitchell and the Western Force seemed like an idea made in heaven.

And yet, after two-thirds of the Super 14 fixtures have been completed, the Force lie anchored at the bottom of the log without a win. Australians do not suffer defeat gladly.

As a nation they are used to winning and, if the Force don’t manage to do any of that in the next few weeks, questions will be asked about the ARU’s expansionist policy.

In the circumstances, Saru’s decision to delay the entry into the competition of the Southern Spears seemed prescient indeed. Prescient, that is, until it was revealed this week that Saru has, in fact, already bankrolled the Spears to the tune of R4,6-million. That is, according to Saru, already R1,6-million beyond the agreed budget for 2006.

Last week, the former Springbok coach, Nick Mallett, suggested an entirely new structure for South African rugby based around the Super 14 franchises.

He said it was patent madness to have about 650 paid professional rugby players in this country and that a saner figure would be 200, with the rest either forced to find proper jobs, or to play at a lower level as semi-professionals.

The situation at the Spears throws Mallett’s suggestion into sharp focus. Here we sit with a franchise that no one else seems to want, that has played eight friendly games of rugby and yet has a fully contracted staff of at least 30 players, all drawing a monthly salary. Whether or not you agree with the Spears’ right to existence, this is simply patent nonsense.

And leaving aside the issue of Saru’s grant of R3-million, how did the Spears get the extra R1,6-million when it ran out? Who at Saru authorised it and how was it paid? In used R20 notes from someone’s sock drawer, via the internet, or did someone send off a postal order as though the Spears were some penurious boy hankering for sweeties in an isolated boarding school?

If the franchise could spend that much money without travelling anywhere to fulfil genuine fixtures, imagine how much it could squander if it were actually taking part in the Super 14? For let’s understand something once and for all: the battle for the fifth South African franchise has nothing to do with results on the field and everything to do with copious amounts of money.

That, after all, is why Saru marginalised the Spears as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Right now, if the original plan to relegate the bottom-placed South African team in this year’s Super 14 was to be implemented, the tournament would not be stopping in Johannesburg next year.

Enough people within the game care about that anomaly to make sure it doesn’t happen, but to be brutally frank it would merely entail swapping one poorly coached and overpaid bunch of players for another.

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