Ryan Vrede

A dark time in South African rugby

The Lions won the promotion-relegation series against the Kings but the reality is that there are actually only losers, writes RYAN VREDE

In the final analysis, both the Lions and Kings lost. The South African Rugby Union lost and the South African public lost. The health of the game in South Africa was dealt a serious blow and the image of our game globally is fractured.

Much was made of what Super Rugby participation means in cold, hard cash. For the Lions, it is negligible. So burdened are they by mounting debt that the cash injection they'll receive from Super Rugby will, at best, get them only temporary respite. At best.

Furthermore, there was nothing in their performance at Ellis Park, or indeed at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium the previous week, to suggest they can improve on their diabolical record in Super Rugby in 2014. To compound their situation, they are only guaranteed a year in Super Rugby. This has obvious adverse implications on player recruitment and their ability to attract sponsors.

They are in exactly the same position the Kings were in after it was announced they would have one season in Super Rugby. How is this a reasonable solution to the sixth-franchise problem?

The South African administrators' fanciful idea that South Africa has enough quality players to support five franchises is frustrating. That they think we're so blessed with resources that it is legitimate to try a force a sixth on their Sanzar partners is laughable. Those who disagree with that assertion will point to the Cheetahs as an example of how a small franchise can rise to be a force. That argument is flawed. Bloemfontein has in recent years been the formative ground of a string of gifted players. After years of being plundered by richer unions, they have stopped the hemorrhaging and held on to a clutch of key players, while being bolstered by some emerging bucks. This, in addition to the refinement of their tactics, was at the root of their success. 

Johannesburg and its surrounds cannot compete when it comes to the calibre of players it produces, and with the regularity which Bloemfontein does. In Gauteng, Bulls country is where the highest population of the region's most gifted are found or migrate. The best the City of Gold produces have generally looked to further their careers elsewhere in the country. A career at the Lions holds no appeal for those men at present. How the Lions remedy this is critical to their long-term health.

The Kings are South Africa's deformed step-child, born prematurely and set on a course for a desperately troubled life. There'll be attempts from Saru to placate them, but a (inadequate) financial handout and matches against motley crews from around the world is a poor return in light of what they've lost.

I accept that the Kings are a problem the current Saru CEO Jurie Roux has inherited, and thus he cannot be held solely responsible for the situation. Indeed, he has worked tirelessly to ensure a place is made at the Super Rugby table for both the Lions and Kings. However, having been fully aware of the complexity of the problem that awaited him when he was appointed, it was reasonable to expect that Roux would have had more potential solutions for what surely was always going to be his biggest challenge. Undoubtedly resolving the Kings issue should have been a key performance area for him. I don't know if it figures in his performance assessment, but I'd offer that if it does, Roux would fare dismally in this regard.

Yet at the heart of the mess is the incompetence of amateurs who make critical decisions pertaining to a professional game. These men are seemingly immovable obstacles to our game's progression. Their ill-timed, ill-informed, inadequately planned conception and introduction of the Kings are the reasons South Africa is once again the game's laughing stock. These, remember, are the men who initially promised the Kings three years in the tournament, then shrugged their shoulders and told them that they could no longer honour that promise, without due consideration for the massively adverse implications of that retraction.

Then, at the announcement of the Kings' entry into Super Rugby in late 2012, Roux said the franchise's complaints that they had been compromised by the timing of the decision were baseless. He said they had been promised entry years before that and thus had ample time to plan. But the reality is nothing about their participation was set in stone prior to their announcement, and being guaranteed only a year in Super Rugby was akin to sending men to war armed only with knives.

Now the Kings have to wait for another year before they'll have an opportunity to reinstate themselves into Super Rugby. But the game waits for no team. In that time they will lose headline sponsors, which could have disastrous knock-on effects for the franchise's employees (players, coaches and other staff). More tellingly, they will also lose players – some of them currently at the franchise and also those coming through the excellent school feeders in the region. 

It is a mess that could have been avoided with  stronger, more astute leadership at the conception phase. Now we're left with the ravaged franchise and one on a hiding to nothing. It has been written that the Lions lost the battle at Ellis Park, but won the war. Nonsense. There are no winners. This is a dark period for South African rugby. One of the darkest in its history. 

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Faceoff: Jon Cardinelli and Gareth Duncan debate the Lions' future

Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images

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