The relative health of South African rugby tends to be linked to the performance of the Bulls. When the blue machine is firing on all cylinders, then all is well with the domestic game. When the Bulls are losing on a regular basis, something is wrong. In that respect, they are a useful bellwether.
So, a Bulls season that began with two defeats against local opposition and a laboured win against the Sunwolves last week suggests the local game is sick. And, given that things are about to get a lot tougher for the Bulls, it is time for our franchises to look to their laurels.
The Bulls set off this week on a three-week tour. The first two weeks are in New Zealand, the last in Japan. On Saturday they play the Blues on Auckland’s northern shore; next week it’s the Chiefs in Hamilton. Therefore the Bulls become the first South African side to face Kiwi opposition some five weeks into the 2017 tournament.
Bad news: the Bulls have lost 10 in a row in New Zealand over the past four seasons. Good news: their last win was against the Blues in 2013. More good news: the Blues are on a three-game losing streak. Bad news: all three defeats were against New Zealand opposition.
And there lies the crux of the matter. Amid all the talk of a Super Rugby restructure, no one is suggesting that New Zealand needs to shed a franchise. All five of them have at least one Super Rugby title in their trophy cabinet.
The All Blacks are the best side in the world, whatever England coach Eddie Jones might want you to believe. The game in New Zealand is in rude health.
Things are very different in South Africa and Australia. Because of failing finances, a team as strong as the Brumbies is being asked to amalgamate with another franchise. Failing that, the Australian Rugby Union will have to euthanise either the Rebels or the Force.
In this country, there is talk of an amalgamation between the Kings and the Cheetahs. We could call them the Chings. Or the Keetahs. Or point out the absurdity and remind everyone that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. The bottom line is that you could call them the Pariahs and no one would mind, if only they could win a game or two.
A month into the 2017 season, it is already clear that half a dozen sides are making up the numbers. The Kings found themselves in the unlikely position of leading the Sharks with 11 minutes remaining at Kings Park last week. They couldn’t close the deal, even though the Sharks were desperately poor on the night.
The Cheetahs were well beaten by the Jaguares in Buenos Aires and are under pressure to bounce back against the Sharks in Bloemfontein this week. Given the speculation emerging around the franchise’s dim future, the players could be forgiven for having other things on their minds.
Rumour has it that if the Cheetahs are deselected when the restructured competition is announced, they will receive a multimillion-rand payout. It could be as much as R60‑million, the amount they would have received from Super Rugby for two seasons.
It might be heresy even to suggest it, but if that is the case they should take the money and run to the bank. At the bank they should set up a trust fund with the potential to put the union on a sound financial basis for the foreseeable future. They would have to withdraw from all commitments bar the Currie Cup, in which they would pay players a small stipend for each match.
The money saved, plus the compound interest earned on the investment, would mean that when the revolution comes they would be better placed than any other union to capitalise.
The revolution in question is the scrapping of Super Rugby at the end of the 2019 season. The competition has run its course and clearly the future of international provincial competition in this country lies in the northern hemisphere.
When the realignment happens, South African players will become free agents, welcome to sell their services to the highest bidder, safe in the knowledge that it will not harm their prospects of playing for South Africa. No more 30-cap nonsense to factor in, just a selection based on merit.
Former Springbok and Free State scrumhalf Michael Claassens has
a mature perspective, having played eight seasons in England and France.
He said: “My own feeling is that the best players should play. If you’re going to have a 30-cap rule, then you have to reward the guys that stay here in South Africa. If they don’t make it worth it for a guy, you can understand why he would go overseas.”
One of the key reasons that Claassens’s former union is always in strife is that Free State do not have the money to keep their best players in Bloemfontein. But a R60‑million trust fund that was untouchable for two years might just solve that issue.
And when the Bulls have returned from another arduous tour of the Antipodes, they might have a certain degree of sympathy for such a scenario.