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Keep your eye on the rugby ball

You could be forgiven for being confused about the future of rugby in this country. Last week a press release arrived from Sanzaar (South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina, Australia Rugby). It was supposed to reveal the future of the Super Rugby tournament. Instead, it said: “Following two days of robust discussion there are a number of tournament considerations that now require further discussion and consultation.” Don’t call us, we’ll call you, in not so many words.

A leak emanating from Cheetahs chief executive Harold Verster was seized upon as proof that two teams would be culled to produce a Super  16. The Kings and either the Rebels or the Force are the most likely to be in for the chop. But officially no one is saying anything, largely it seems because turkeys are notoriously reluctant to vote for Christmas.

More mystery surrounds South Africa’s bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup (RWC). On Monday, a delegation from World Rugby arrived in the country on a three-day visit. After meeting officials from the South African Rugby Union (Saru), the delegation was scheduled to meet Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula on Wednesday in Johannesburg.

This marked a remarkable volte-face for Mbalula. In April last year, the minister banned four federations from bidding for international tournaments, citing a failure to transform as the reason. He said: “I have therefore resolved to revoke the privilege of Athletics South Africa, Cricket South Africa, Netball South Africa and South African Rugby to host and bid for major and mega international tournaments in the Republic of South Africa as a consequence of the aforementioned federations not meeting their own set of transformation targets with immediate effect.”

Saru chose to ignore this ban when, in September last year, it submitted an official bid for RWC 2023. In theory, then, South Africa is now in a race with Ireland and France for the hosting rights. The question is, what happened to Mbalula’s ban?

It would seem that some things have changed. Mbalula made his announcement at a meeting of the eminent persons group (EPG) on transformation in sport. He said at the time: “I will review this decision when considering the results of the 2016-2017 transformation barometer.”

Those results are apparently in but, as with Sanzaar’s omertà on Super Rugby, no one is saying anything, with the exception of EPG chairperson, Willie Basson, who said this week: “The outcome of the process has led to significant improvements.”

He would not reveal what those improvements were but confirmed that the report was with the minister, who was reviewing the data.

But it’s unlikely that Mbalula has had much time to devote to it as the past two weeks have been spent unsuccessfully fighting fires over Durban’s bid for the Commonwealth Games.

It was more than a little ironic that the World Rugby’s delegates arrived on Monday, the very same day on which the Commonwealth Games announcement was made. But optimists have argued that Durban’s withdrawal leaves more money in the fiscus for the World Cup (supposing, of course, that the minister withdraws his ban).

But it is far more likely that the lessons learned will make the government far more reluctant to pursue multibillion-rand sporting white elephants.

Meanwhile life, and rugby, goes on. There has even been proof, if any was needed, that the grass is not greener in the northern hemisphere, with the decision of two Paris-based clubs to merge. Stade Français and Racing 92 are among the oldest and most successful rugby clubs in France, but economic realities have forced them to pool their resources.

Both sides play in France’s premier league — the Top 14 — and so it might be analogous to the Lions and the Bulls merging to play in the Currie Cup. The bean-counters will love it but for the players there are now exactly half the number of contracts up for renegotiation. Stade Français’s players promptly went on strike.

And, in case you were wondering how this is relevant to this country, consider the fact that Stade Français currently has eight South Africans on its books. One of these, Springbok back row Willem Alberts, has already signalled his decision to return home.

Fellow Springbok Morné Steyn may also be back with the Bulls before the Super Rugby season is over, and there will be much interest from franchises over the availability of the likes of Craig Burden, Heinke van der Merwe and Gerhard Mostert, all three of whom could therefore be in the mix for a Springbok berth in time for the Rugby Championship.

It pays not to look away. There has been much criticism of Saru’s 30 Springbok cap overseas-based player ruling, but economic privation may conspire to make it irrelevant.

Equally, if the sports minister can throw the Commonwealth Games over his shoulder with one hand and beckon the 2023 World Cup with the other, it would be wise to realise that in South Africa today nothing is ever set in stone.

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