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A necessary Super Rugby cull


  • 12 Jun 2017
Super Rugby in SA Rugby magazine Super Rugby in SA Rugby magazine

With South Africa set to lose two Super Rugby franchises, JON CARDINELLI looks at four possible scenarios.

AS THINGS STAND

In early 2014, SA Rugby invited the media to an off-the-record Super Rugby briefing at the organisation’s headquarters in Plattekloof, Cape Town. Over the course of the two-hour session, officials attempted to explain how an 18-team, four-conference tournament would operate when it was introduced in 2016. The officials did not appear convinced about Sanzaar’s decision to add three more teams to an already bloated tournament, as they delivered broad and somewhat guarded responses to the journalists’ questions.

A decline in competitive matches, as well as the lack of integrity in a schedule that sees four teams bypassing New Zealand opposition during the conference stage, has been obvious to fans and stakeholders alike. After a disappointing 2016 tournament that witnessed a significant drop in TV viewership and stadium attendance in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, Sanzaar was forced to admit its mistake.

On 9 April 2017, Sanzaar confirmed that the tournament would scale down to 15 teams and that two sides from South Africa and one from Australia would be axed. Furthermore, it would be up to the respective unions to determine which teams were surplus to requirements. This is where the matter took an ugly turn.

Two of the three sides in the firing line, the Cheetahs and Force, publicly opposed the decision. The Kings reminded South African stakeholders about the role it has to play in developing young black talent in the Eastern Cape and in aiding SA Rugby in its quest to realise some lofty transformation goals. Cheetahs and Kings fans pointed to the Lions’ poor run of results prior to 2016. Others wondered if the Lions and Cheetahs should reunite under the Cats banner, or if the Gauteng region should have one franchise comprising players from the Bulls and Lions.

SA Rugby proceeded to measure each of its franchises according to the following criteria: financial and economic sustainability, sustainable support base, team performance, and stadium and facilities. The results of that process and the final decision on who stays and who goes is expected in early June.

‘We have reached this painful point partly because of over-optimism and partly because we have not always taken a hard-nosed business view of what is good for rugby,’ said SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux. ‘It is the right process with a challenging outcome for two of our franchises.’

Roux appeared to echo the sentiments of those SA Rugby officials who briefed the South African media in 2014. The decision to expand the competition was flawed from the outset and the authorities now face a tough, yet necessary call regarding the future of two Super Rugby teams.

After analysing data related to player development, team performances and crowd figures, SA Rugby magazine considers four possible outcomes. Transformation, or more specifically the development and selection of black players, should also be used as a measurement, given SA Rugby’s mandate to field a Springbok side that is 50% black in 2019.

SCENARIO 1: CHEETAHS AND KINGS AXED

In 2013, a crowd of 32,000 watched the Kings’ debut match against the Force; 42,000 attended the ‘coastal derby’ involving the Sharks, and the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium was close to capacity (46 000) when the three-time champions Bulls paid a visit. Enthusiasm began to wane in the latter stages of the competition, though, and only 18 000 watched the Kings’ historic win against the Highlanders. The Kings finished 2013 at the bottom of the South African conference and the overall 15-team table.

After losing a Super Rugby promotion-relegation series against the Lions, the franchise fell on hard times. Many coaches and players decided to further their careers at other local franchises or abroad. In 2015, the ongoing financial strife at Eastern Province threatened to disrupt the Kings’ return to Super Rugby in 2016. The Kings finished 17th in that 18-team tournament. Only 10 000 people attended the derby against the Sharks, and 5 400 watched the basement duel with the Sunwolves.

The Eastern Cape has been identified as an important region for South African rugby. Indeed, many players – black and white – competing in franchises across the country hail from this part of the world. However, it has to be significant that none of these players has gone on to win a Springbok call-up while representing the Kings (at least not as at the beginning of May). In terms of finishing schools, the Kings are at the bottom of the South African franchise list.

Since separating from the Cats in late 2005, the Cheetahs have produced 19 Springboks (two more than the Lions and Stormers during this period). In terms of Super Rugby performances, the Cheetahs have been consistently mediocre. Since 2006, the central franchise has finished in 10th place or worse in all but one of their 11 campaigns (they qualified for the playoffs in 2013). And do fans in Bloemfontein have an appetite for Super Rugby? Historically, the Free State Stadium (with a present capacity of 45,000) has battled to draw a big crowd and this may be part of the reason it hasn’t hosted a Test match since 2010. In 2006, less than a year after the Cats disbanded, 4,000 fans pitched for the ‘catfight’ between the Cheetahs and Lions. In 2008 and 2009, the average attendance hovered around 20,000.

While the Cheetahs enjoyed their best season in 2013, only 20,000 fans attended the clashes involving the Kings, Sharks and Stormers. In 2016, fewer than 18,000 watched the opening game of the season against a Jaguares side packed with Argentinian Test stars. It didn’t get any better for matches involving the Stormers (13,000), Brumbies (5,400), Force (10,000) and Bulls (14,000).

In 2016, Sanzaar CEO Andy Marinos admitted that stadium attendances were down across the tournament. However, what the data from the past 11 years indicates, is that the Cheetahs have consistently failed to pack their modest-sized stadium to even half-capacity.

VERDICT: BEST OPTION

SCENARIO 2: KINGS AXED, CHEETAHS AND LIONS MERGE

In an effort to keep everyone happy – bar the Kings, who don’t have a leg to stand on as far as Super Rugby is concerned – SA Rugby may revisit the merger concept.

The Lions have won a lot of fans since their return from the Super Rugby wilderness in 2014. Last year, they qualified for the playoffs for the first time, and became the fourth side to represent South Africa in a final. Yet SA Rugby will assess the Lions on their performances, crowd figures and several other criteria over an extended period. When one considers the Lions’ Super Rugby existence in its entirety, one understands why they may be forced to merge. Between 2006 and 2016, the Lions finished no higher than 12th in eight of their 10 campaigns, and collected the wooden spoon on three occasions.

They have produced 17 Boks since 2006 (six of those in the wake of the Lions’ relative success in 2016). What has been pointed out on more than one occasion is the Lions’ meagre contribution to the South African transformation cause. Since 2006, only three black players have earned national colours on the back of performances for the Lions. No side, bar the Kings (who have produced no Boks to date), has fared worse in this department.

The crowd attendance at Ellis Park between 2006 and 2016 has been largely disappointing. The iconic 62 000-seater was two-thirds empty when the Lions hosted the seven-time champion Crusaders in 2007, 2009, 2012 and during the regular season in 2016. Some of the local derbies have attracted bigger crowds over the years, particularly the matches featuring the Bulls and Stormers (30 000 watched the Lions win in 2016). Yet the matches against Australian opposition and the likes of the Cheetahs have been poorly supported.

Apart from the Kings, the Cheetahs and Lions have been South Africa’s worst performing teams over a period of 11 years. A closer look at the respective records of the Cheetahs and Lions reveals some similarities, which is probably why many feel that both teams should feature in the Super Rugby expulsion conversation.

While a merger would be far from ideal for either team, it would allow both to maintain a presence in Super Rugby. Between 1998 and 2005, the Cats produced some mixed results. They finished stone last in 1998, 2003 and 2004, but qualified for the semi-finals in 2000 and 2001.

VERDICT: BEST MERGER DECISION, BUT UNLIKELY

SCENARIO 3: KINGS AXED, BULLS AND LIONS MERGE

SA Rugby maintains that the Cats franchise never worked because it relied on two sets of players based 400km apart. In truth, Bloemfontein and Johannesburg were – and continue to be – worlds apart.

If the merger came to pass, the question concerning team culture would remain.

Would the players take on the culture of the Cheetahs, a side based in a city with small-town values, or would they adopt the attitude of the Lions, a team based in one of the biggest metropolises in Africa?

In their quest to secure a future as an independent entity in Super Rugby, the Cheetahs are likely to play the development card. They have produced more black Boks (nine) than any other franchise since 2006.

Sixteen players who debuted for the Boks between 2006 and 2016 attended Grey College in Bloemfontein. Grey have accounted for 15% of the total number of Bok debutants during that period. That’s a significant number for one school and highlights its importance to South African rugby.

Will Grey College cease to attract and produce Test-calibre players if the Cheetahs lose their Super Rugby licence? Probably not. Of those 16 players who went to Grey College, only five were picked for the Boks on the back of Super Rugby performances for the Cheetahs. Again, there are better finishing schools for players aspiring to Test rugby.

Frans Steyn, Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, and many other former Grey pupils received national call-ups after performing for other franchises.

The argument for a merger between the Bulls and the Lions is based on the proximity of the franchises (65km separates Pretoria and Johannesburg). As mentioned earlier, there is good cause for asking the Lions to merge.

However, the Bulls – who have won three Super Rugby titles, featured in the playoffs eight times, and produced more Springboks (55) than any other side in the professional era – don’t deserve to be forced into a partnership for the sake of another side’s survival. While the Bulls have finished ninth in the past three tournaments and have battled to draw big crowds (5 800 watched the must-win clash against the Jaguares at Loftus Versfeld this past April), they remain one of the biggest franchises in the competition and continue to attract young talent from around the country.

VERDICT: HIGHLY UNLIKELY

SCENARIO 4: CHEETAHS AND KINGS RETAINED, ANOTHER TWO AXED

The importance of the Free State and Eastern Cape regions cannot be overstated. A total of 101 Boks have been produced across South Africa since 2006. A closer look at the background of each player reveals that 21 went to school in the Free State and that 13 originally hailed from the Eastern Cape. Thirty-four players – more than a third of the total number of Boks produced between 2006 and 2016 – began their careers in those regions.

SA Rugby cannot ignore those regions. That said, those numbers don’t justify a Super Rugby franchise in either area. While no Kings player has been selected for higher honours to date, the region can take heart from the fact that 13 players who were schooled and developed in the Eastern Cape have gone on to represent other franchises and subsequently earned a national call-up.

Who would make way if the Cheetahs and Kings were retained on these grounds?

We’ve already looked at why the Bulls, South Africa’s most decorated Super Rugby side, deserve to stay. The Lions might be in the firing line in this scenario, but surely the Sharks and Stormers would be safe.

While the Sharks have never won the Super Rugby title, they have qualified for the playoffs on more occasions (10) than any other South African team and have represented the country in a record four finals. They haven’t produced as many black Springboks as the Bulls or the Cheetahs in the professional era, but have performed better than the Lions in this department. They have some work to do if they’re going to bring back the big crowds witnessed between 2006 and 2009.

The Stormers have long been one of the best-supported sides in the tournament.

In the late 1990s, Newlands enjoyed crowds of 35 000-plus for matches involving foreign sides like the Crusaders, Chiefs and Brumbies.

This season, even with the drop in stadium attendance across the tournament, 34 000 came through the Newlands gates to watch the fixture involving the Bulls, while 35 000 attended the clash with the Chiefs.

Like the Sharks, the Stormers have developed a reputation for falling short in the knockout stage. But like the Sharks, the Stormers have achieved a great deal more than the Cheetahs, Kings or Lions.

The Cape side has qualified for the playoffs seven times and featured in the 2010 final. The Stormers are second only to the Bulls for Boks (and black Boks) produced in the professional era. The demographics of the current side suggest that they will add to that tally sooner rather than later.

VERDICT: EXTREMELY UNLIKELY

– This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Photo: Frikkie Kapp/Gallo Images

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