A wake-up call for dreaming Saru officials

As predicted, the South African Rugby Union (Saru) stirred up a hornet’s nest by announcing that the Southern Kings would play in the 2013 Super Rugby tournament. A letter signed by all five South African franchises currently involved was duly dispatched, making it plain to Saru that the Kings’s participation was anything but a done deal.

Intriguingly, Saru president Oregon Hoskins said he would send a copy of the letter to the other nine unions that make up Saru and it “will be in the hands of all unions to decide which teams will play in the Super Rugby series”. This is classic political persuasion from the president, the very thing Danie Craven used to fall back on when affiliates disagreed with him.

Hoskins is assuming that the nine unions that play only Vodacom Cup and Currie Cup rugby will vote automatically against the big five. Historically, this has almost always been the case, but on this occasion there are forces beyond our borders at play. South Africa may be the most powerful of the three Sanzar (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia Rugby) unions, but it has signed a binding deal with Super Rugby sponsor Newscorp until 2015.

Sanzar chief executive Greg Peters told rugby website keo.co.za this week: “The reality is that expansion of Super Rugby is not possible at this stage. Before their inclusion the Kings’s aspirations were discussed in detail. How they are accommodated is a domestic issue for South Africa. And although we are always open to dialogue on this issue, it is incumbent upon them to make the necessary adjustments to facilitate the Kings’s inclusion.”

It is crystal clear that Peters will not accede to Saru’s request for a sixth South African franchise. Equally, the letter from the big five to Saru says that they are not interested in either a promotion-relegation model or a merger between two unions. And so Saru is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

There is a small possibility that a compromise may be reached, although in a manner hardly beneficial to the local game. The Golden Lions Rugby Union, despite furious claims to the contrary by its president, Kevin de Klerk, may be technically insolvent. It has just signed a new three-year sponsorship deal with a property loan-stock company, but there are doubts that the union can afford to keep trading.

We may have reached a tipping point in the way the local game is administered. Until now the big five have enjoyed protected status at both Super Rugby and Currie Cup level, but there comes a time when money in the bank takes precedence over sentiment. It happened in football when money came pouring in from satellite broadcasters in the early 1990s. Bums on seats were no longer the key to successful trading and it is well known that Manchester United now make far more money from selling replica jerseys than they do from ticketing. The downside is that clubs are much more likely to go bankrupt now than they ever were in the days before satellite television.

In the event that Saru chooses to hitch its wagon to the Kings, the issue of solvency will be much to the fore. The Lions union relies on its annual stipend from Super Rugby to keep trading – take that money away and a drama may indeed turn into a crisis.

The Kings have a tiny budget in comparison and might regard the Super Rugby stipend as the road to happiness, but it will be far from that. To make the Kings franchise work money will have to be poured into it by both Saru and the local municipality. The latter is still searching for a way to pay off the crippling debt on the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium and would love to have some of rugby’s millions to help matters along.

But even if the Lions union were to go under and the Kings were to replace them in Super Rugby in 2013, there is still the matter of playing strength. The Lions won the Currie Cup last year, but for the most part the competition was played without World Cup-contracted Springboks. So, as well as John Mitchell’s team grabbed their opportunity and as fine as some of their young players undoubtedly are, there remain critics who consider it a hollow victory.

However, the achievements of the Lions are Olympian in comparison to those of the Kings, which have failed to break out of the Currie Cup first division, despite the urgings of Saru’s politicians.

Ironically, the two teams met in a friendly in George on Tuesday night. The Lions won 88-0, scoring 14 tries. As statements go, it was fairly clear and there is likely to be more of the same when the Kings play the Sharks on Friday night.

The debate surrounding President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address should make it plain that there comes a time when politicians have to be introduced to reality. It is simply not enough to announce a wish list and drive away in the German sedan. It is not the best preparation, then, for the new Super Rugby season, which kicks off next week.

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