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If playing ball was about morality…

There’s nothing quite like a game of rugby to take your mind off administrative matters. Which is why it is a crying shame that the Varsity Cup has been halted by ongoing student protests across the country. The old struggle mantra of “No normal sport in an abnormal society” has been dusted off and it is hard to believe that things will ever be the same again.

In its ninth season the Varsity Cup had built up an enviable following, both at the games and on television. The quality of play has undergone huge transformation but, according to the bulk of student protesters, the same could not be said for the institutions the teams represent.

It takes a meltdown such as this to remind us how irrelevant sport is in the wider context. It remains no more than “the opiate of the masses”, something designed to take our minds off politics rather than engage with its processes. To oversimplify, hoping that next year’s student intake will include a useful tight-head prop is utterly specious if said prop can’t fund his course and doesn’t have anywhere to stay.

The problems at our tertiary institutions should inform what is going on in professional rugby in this country, but obviously they will not. There are those who believe, for instance, that ousting the current president of the South African Rugby Union (Saru) and finding a new coach for the Springboks should be prioritised. A classic case of putting the cart before the horse.

If you are looking for a priority for the professional game, try finding money to pay the Kings players who have not received a wage cheque in six months. Try explaining to those players that their anaemic bank balances are mere collateral damage in the glorious struggle to install Eastern Cape rugby in its rightful place at the main table.

At last week’s opening Super Rugby clash between the Kings and the Sharks in Port Elizabeth, fewer than 10?000 people came to watch an event that had been hyped for the past two years. The Kings players fought hard until the break, then capitulated in the second half to a Sharks team some way short of fearsome. It was as if the Kings had remembered during the half-time interval that there was more to life than another 40 minutes of self-inflicted, unremunerated pain.

This week the Kings have a bye, which means they have a fortnight to prepare for the Chiefs’ visit to PE next Saturday. Just as a week is a long time in politics, two weeks could wreak havoc at the Kings. Cheeky Watson’s presidency may have ended and the players may have been paid by then. But don’t hold your breath.

The point is this; if the Varsity Cup can postpone its fixtures, it requires no great leap to imagine Super Rugby without the Kings. What if the Chiefs, who were kicked out of their own Waikato Stadium in 2012, were to refuse to play?

The franchise and its players would surely sympathise with the Kings players, for in 2012 the Waikato Rugby Union owed the Hamilton City Council, which owned the ground, close to NZ$1.5?million. With no assets to pay the debt, the team was locked out by the council. After hurried negotiations they were allowed back in to play five matches, but were not allowed to train there.

Desperate times require desperate measures and the Chiefs chose to engage with the community. Each day, one local school would offer its facilities to the franchise. The players would meet at a central point and ride their bikes to that day’s designated school. The remarkable outcome was that the Chiefs won the Super Rugby title that season and repeated the feat in 2013.

That is not going to happen to the Kings, but maybe we have reached the point where other teams are going to have to stand up for the franchise, because it appears that Saru won’t.

This week the Chiefs play the Lions at the same stadium they were locked out of in 2012. The Lions’ recent history is intertwined with that of the Kings, with the former being relegated by Saru in favour of the latter three years ago.

Imagine, then, a time after Saturday’s encounter when the teams sit down to share a drink and discuss next week’s fixtures. The Lions players will ask for a few tips for taking on the Highlanders in Dunedin, and the Chiefs will query the rumours coming out of the republic about the imminent liquidation of the Eastern Province Rugby Union on March 10.

Imagine a Chiefs team somewhat more militant than we are used to in South Africa, demanding of their employer why they were travelling to Port Elizabeth to play a team that can’t pay its players and that, post the liquidation of the provincial rugby union, technically didn’t exist?

These are hard questions to answer, but a good deal easier than the ones confronting the organisers of the Varsity Cup. Logistically, for instance, it is quite possible to continue with the competition. Morally, however, it seems unjustifiable.

In reality, Super Rugby will continue unabated, churning out fixtures and air miles. The Lions are in the middle of a 60 000km round trip from Johannesburg, and the Sunwolves are due to clock up some 800 000km of travelling in the next four months. Both teams are likely to say to the Kings players: Sorry for you; just give us the points and we’ll be on our way.

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