Both the Lions and Southern Kings will continue to struggle in 2014 regardless of the outcome to the promotion-relegation series, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The waiting is over. Two teams will go into this series, but only one will emerge with the right to compete in the 2014 Super Rugby competition.
It's a series that both camps have been dreading, rather than keenly anticipating, for some time. For when you examine the promotion-relegation system and the consequences of losing the series, you begin to understand that there is far more to lose than there is to gain.
I visited Ellis Park in June and took the opportunity to chat to Lions president Kevin de Klerk about the promotion-relegation system and exactly how much is riding on these two play-off matches. The former Springbok lock admitted to being more than a little nervous about the outcome of these games. He said it was crazy to have so much at stake in two matches.
The Lions suffered huge personnel and financial losses following the 2012 relegation, and it is after De Klerk detailed those losses that I began to understand the ramifications of a year in the Super Rugby wilderness.
For the Lions, their situation has the potential to go from bad to worse. As De Klerk suggested, the Lions may suffer another exodus of players and a complete exit of sponsors if they don't succeed in winning this series.
The winner will enjoy one year of guaranteed Super Rugby participation. Sanzar is unwilling to budge on the current competition format, so the decision on whether to accommodate six South African teams will be taken only when the new broadcast deals are brokered ahead of the 2016 season.
What this means is that South Africa will be limited to five franchises for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. One franchise will always spend a year in the cold and will be forced to face challenges similar to those faced by the Lions in 2013.
When I chatted to Lions coach Johan Ackermann recently, he made it clear that he was not a fan of the promotion-relegation system. And as Ackermann pointed out, the Kings are in the same boat as the Lions. One team will suffer a significant drain on their finances and player resources and the other will win a year's participation in Super Rugby: a truncated opportunity that inhibits that franchise's ability to lure big sponsors and players.
It was a challenge faced by the Kings at the start of the 2013 season. Saru decided to include the Kings, at the expense of the last-placed Lions, only in August 2012. Players typically sign new deals or contract extensions during the month of July, so several big names who had expressed interest in playing for the Kings could not wait until August. They accepted other offers and the Kings lost out.
The fact that the Kings were guaranteed only one year in Super Rugby was also factored into any decision to sign with Eastern Cape franchise. This also affected deals with sponsors and investors. The Kings managed to secure a main sponsor only in round four of this year's competition.
When the competition is restructured in 2016, both the Lions and Kings will be accommodated and both will have the time and the platform to build a competitive team.
Until then, they will experience two years of uncertainty. If they're not spending a year completely on the outside, then they'll be operating with a significant handicap, as the Kings did in 2013.
It emerged recently that the Lions and Kings were considering a merger. It's an option that neither team wants, but there is truth in the rumour that the option was on the table.
It would make for a logistical nightmare, with four home games staged in Johannesburg, and four in Port Elizabeth, but the benefit of that option is that both the Lions and Kings would receive at least some financial input. In that scenario, neither team would have to experience losses like those suffered by the Lions in 2013.
The exclusion from Super Rugby doesn't just impact on the senior side. Robbie Kempson, the director of the Kings academy, told me earlier this year that a lot of good work has been done over the past three seasons in establishing the Kings' junior structures. However, if the Kings were to lose their Super Rugby status, it would set the region back completely.
Kempson already battles to keep his charges in the area, as rich unions like the Bulls and Sharks perennially raid the region for talented young players. Kempson will lose that battle if there's no Super Rugby team in Port Elizabeth for the local players to aspire to.
What's at stake should not be underestimated. The Lions have an opportunity to win a reprieve after a 2013 season that has involved setback after setback. The Kings, who have quickly established themselves as the lovable underdogs of South African rugby, have an opportunity to build on that performance for at least another season.
Unfortunately, both teams have far more to lose. Two years in the Super Rugby wilderness would be catastrophic for the Lions. And defeat for the newly established Kings will lead to big losses. It would prove a devastating blow to an Eastern Cape community that has been denied top-flight rugby for so long.
It's a complete mess of a situation. As both De Klerk and his counterpart at the Kings, Cheeky Watson, have publicly stated, the leadership of South African rugby could have done more to prevent it.
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