Super Rugby tackles relegation model

The announcement by the South African Rugby Union (Saru) that the Southern Kings will take part in the 2013 Super Rugby competition has put the wind up the other five franchises. In an attempt to mollify them, Saru has begun a process it hopes will result in a 16th team being added to the competition, but there is no guarantee of success.

The idea has been rejected by the Sanzar (South Africa New Zealand Australia Rugby) board in the past for two principal reasons. First, it unbalances a model that has five franchises based in each country.
Second, at the beginning of the latest sponsorship deal with News Corporation, it means cutting the cake 16 ways instead of 15, meaning that the other franchises will receive less than they are getting at the moment.

Sanzar has a long-term aim of growing the competition, with teams from both Argentina and Japan mooted, but simply adding on a sixth South African franchise makes little sense in the current economic climate.

It is far more likely that the board will tell Saru that it has made its political bed and must now find a way to lie in it. The model that makes most sense and has, consequently, unsettled the existing South African franchises, is that of promotion and relegation.

In all likelihood, the Kings will simply take the place of the bottom-placed franchise from this year’s tournament. That is, after all, the way Super Rugby began in this country. The 1993 Super 10 included Natal and Transvaal (as they were then known) because they had contested the 1992 Currie Cup final. Northern Transvaal qualified by finishing third on the log. The following year, Eastern Province finished third and took the place of Northerns, while in 1995, the three South African qualifiers were Transvaal, Western Province and Free State.

It has become fashionable to declare that promotion and relegation models don’t work because sponsors are unwilling to commit to multiyear deals if they are not guaranteed exposure at the highest level. But if it happened in the early 90s, there is no reason it cannot happen today. Apart from anything else, it adds spice to the closing stages of log play, when teams are forced to consider the effect of relegation instead of trotting out the hoary old cliché of “building for the future”.

Incoming Springbok coach, Heyneke Meyer has already declared that the future is now: there is never a good time for a Springbok team to lose. So it is in Super Rugby, where there should be extra motivation for preseason training in the light of Saru’s declaration about the Kings.

In Durban, the Sharks face the future without a host of familiar faces, principal among them John Smit and Stefan Terblanche. New captain Keegan Daniel is looking forward to the challenge and has earned the respect of the rest of the squad with a string of high quality performances.

He said, “I have a lot of leaders around me in the team and it is our job to reach the playoffs.”

At the ripe old age of 21, one of those leaders is the outrageously gifted Springbok, Pat Lambie. At the World Cup, Lambie slotted in at fullback after an unfortunate injury ended the tournament for Frans Steyn, but Sharks coach John Plumtree has been running the youngster at flyhalf in preseason training. Lambie said he did not mind where he played, but the way things are shaping up, he may wear the number 10 jersey for the foreseeable future at provincial level.

The Sharks back line will have a very different look from the one that contested the Currie Cup final last year. Freddie Michalak looks likely to be first choice for scrumhalf, the position in which he started his first-class career at Toulouse.

Lambie’s centres may be Meyer Bosman and JP Pietersen, with the latter being tried out at 13 in a friendly against Boland this week. The wings should be Odwa Ndungane and Lwazi Mvovo, with Louis Ludik and the newly signed Riaan Viljoen rotating in the fullback slot.

As the season progresses, it will become clear whether Pietersen can handle the extra responsibility of playing in the midfield. Elsewhere, the eventual return to fitness of Charl McLeod and Conrad Hoffman will give the coach some options at scrumhalf. Equally, it may allow Michalak to return to flyhalf, his favoured position these days, with Lambie either being rested or replacing Bosman at inside centre.

There are a number of extremely talented youngsters waiting in the wings as well. Look out for the former Free State schools centre, Piet Lindeque, as well as the 19-year-old lock forward, Pieter-Stef du Toit. The latter is the grandson of Piet “muscles” du Toit, the great loose head prop who was a member of the last Springbok side to do the Grand Slam in Britain and Ireland half a century ago.

Early indications are that some much needed pruning should result in good growth for the Sharks in 2012, but with the threat of relegation hanging over the season, there is an urgent need to turn ­talent into log points.

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