Cheetahs must stay in Super Rugby

SIMON BORCHARDT says the Cheetahs deserve to keep their Super Rugby status, and identifies three teams that should be axed.

A motion to reduce the number of teams in the Super Rugby tournament from 18 back to 15 was reportedly put forward at a Sanzaar meeting in London last Friday, with the organisation set to reveal the changes to the much-criticised format within the coming days.

On Sunday, Rapport newspaper claimed that not only were the Kings, South Africa's weakest franchise, set for the chop, but that the Cheetahs could be axed too.

ALSO READ: Cheetahs facing Super Rugby axe?

The newspaper said this was because the Bloemfontein-based franchise did not have the economic power of the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers regions. For example, if only 10% of potential rugby viewers in and around Pretoria attended a match at Loftus, the stadium could be filled six times over. In contrast, 10% of potential rugby viewers in and around Bloemfontein would only attract about 15,000 to Free State Stadium. 

Only 8,000 fans bothered to attend the Cheetahs' first match of the season against the Lions, a shocking figure, considering it was a match-up between the Currie Cup champions and last year's Super Rugby finalists. But if crowd attendance determined a team's Super Rugby status, then the Stormers, whose long-suffering fans continue to pitch up in large numbers, would have to play against themselves.

The Cheetahs have disappointed on the field over the past three seasons – finishing 14th, 12th and 14th on the combined log – but they did reach the playoffs in 2013, which is something that Australia's two weakest teams, the Force and Rebels, have never done.

While South Africa clearly does not have enough quality rugby players within the country to field six Super Rugby sides, Australia does not have enough to field five. In fact, a strong argument can be made that they should only have three franchises – the Waratahs, Reds and Brumbies, which was the case until 2006 when the Force were added to the competition.

The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) wanted Super Rugby franchises in Perth and then Melbourne (from 2011) in order to grow the game Down Under, but neither side has added much to the competition. The Force have finished 15th and 16th on the combined log over the past two seasons and the Rebels 10th and 12th. 

Then there's the Sunwolves, the Japanese franchise that came stone last on the combined log last year and will do so again this season based on the first three rounds of the 2017 tournament. They conceded 83 points in Tokyo against the Hurricanes on the opening weekend, and things could get even uglier for them when they travel to Christchurch, Dunedin and Hamilton next month. 

Based purely on results, the Sunwolves should be the first team to be axed if the tournament is reduced to 15 teams. The big benefit of that for the other teams, and the South African ones in particular, is that they would no longer have to make the long trip to Tokyo or the Sunwolves' other 'home', Singapore. Yes, it would be a blow for Japanese rugby to lose the franchise, but Sanzaar needs to do what is best for Super Rugby, not Japan.

Next in line for the chop are the Kings, who have been more competitive this year, but still lost both of their home games so far, while beating the Sunwolves away. And there's little chance of them becoming serious Super Rugby playoff contenders in the future, now that Eastern Province have joined franchise partners Border and South Western Districts in the Currie Cup First Division. 

The third team to go should be either the Force or the Rebels. Neither would be missed much by neutrals, so let the ARU decide which one it would like to keep, based on which city has embraced rugby the most.

There has been some talk of giving the Jaguares the boot, as it would ease the travel demands on the other teams, but they will be competitive as long as they are Argentina's Test team in all but name. And unlike Japan, Argentina are in the Rugby Championship, so it makes sense for them to have a Super Rugby franchise too.

The rest of the teams' places in a 15-team competition should also be secure, including the Cheetahs.

– Borchardt is the editor of SA Rugby magazine

Photo: Gerhard Steenkamp/BackpagePix

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Simon Borchardt