SA franchises have failed

Excellence must be acknowledged and mediocrity deemed unacceptable if South Africa's Vodacom Super Rugby results are to change, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.

South African rugby, with the necessary honesty, will always be a factor in world rugby, but the illusion of grandeur among so many rugby folk is misplaced and embarrassing.

There’s such a celebrated history with our rugby. You only have to spend a morning watching schools rugby anywhere in the country to know the richness of the game.

My boy’s a SACS lad and the school hosted Paul Roos a fortnight ago. SACS Junior and High fielded 40 teams in the day and a school with 151 years of rugby tradition honoured the visitors, who this year are celebrating their 150th year in rugby.

Paul Roos is more a rugby academy than a schools rugby team these days, but the beauty of the day was the SACS jersey is no different to the one worn 151 years ago. Ditto the Paul Roos colours. Tradition has been respected without compromise but growth has not been stalled.

Our U20s have been the talk of the World Rugby Championship and there’s huge regard for the potential of the Springboks on any given Saturday. South Africa’s best run-on XV stands shoulder to shoulder with any in the world.

But our Vodacom Super Rugby professional franchises have failed. It’s been an abysmal effort across the franchises this season, as it was last season – and the one before that …

We’ve lauded the Lions for not being the whipping boys but the reality is they finished eighth.

New Zealand’s Crusaders don’t qualify for the top six play-offs, despite having the sixth-most points.

If Super Rugby’s league system rewarded the six best teams over 16 matches, there wouldn’t be a South African team in the play-offs. New Zealand’s fourth best team (the Crusaders) earned more points than South Africa’s first.

The structured format that ensures a South African, Australian and New Zealand representative in the play-offs (to ensure interest in all three countries) only adds to the illusion in this country that it ain’t half bad when it’s just so bad.

The Stormers, to win the tournament, will have to travel overseas and win a semi-final and final in successive weekends. It won’t happen.

The Cheetahs were a disgrace. The Bulls were even worse, given the quality of their playing squad, and everything has been said about the embarrassment of the Sharks.

Our supporters, defensive, defiant, deluded and ignorant, boast that the Springboks will win the World Cup. Perhaps they will, but that’s simply an elastoplast when major surgery is required to the fabric of the game.

Four of the five Super Rugby coaches won’t head up the South African challenge next year and three of the four overstayed their welcome by more than 24 months.

The Sharks, in Gary Gold, are the exception. Gold arrived in Durban from Japan a week before this year’s tournament started in the guise of the director of rugby and assumed the head coaching role. Now we have learned the Sharks will appoint a head coach for 2016 and Gold will have no hands-on coaching role but be utilised as a director of rugby that oversees the development of the franchise at all levels.

It's a role better suited to his skills but it doesn’t excuse the fact that the Sharks, supposedly the brand leaders of regional professionalism, effectively attempted a campaign without a head coach.

What arrogance for a franchise in which the Super Rugby myth differs vastly to the reality which reads: no title in 20 years and on average a sixth-place league placing.

Professional coaches in South Africa, with the exception of Jake White and Nick Mallett (of recent vintage) are a protected breed; rewarded for bowing to elected officials and excused for mediocre results. The winners (like Mallett and White) came with egos and opinions and a disregard for those whose status is the result of politicking and electioneering.

White, in particular, is a dirty word within South African rugby’s presidential corridors. He won the World Cup, but was dismissed by those who felt he failed to honour the president and his men.

White then excelled in Australia with the Brumbies and in one season at the Sharks won the South African conference and guided the team to a semi-final. Yet he wasn’t even a consideration for Coach of the Year. He wasn’t liked so his results didn’t matter.

Naka Drotské, as one example, was a popular guy for nine years, so it never mattered that the Cheetahs propped up the stable. Similarly the Lions, and Frans Ludeke was excused sustained failure at the Bulls over the last three years because he knew his place to be secondary to those who govern from the memory of South Africa’s days of sporting isolation.

Allistair Coetzee, at the Stormers, regressed with each year in charge in terms of the potency of the Stormers. The Stormers imploded, choked and won nothing but he has been lauded as if a five-time champion.

There will always be hope in our game but it’s the honesty that has been missing for the last 20 years. We’ve won the Tri-Nations/Rugby Championship and three Super Rugby titles and at a national level the Boks have beaten the All Blacks 14 times in 51 matches. But the only coaching heads that have rolled without hesitation have been those who have been successful.

There should be no rejoicing that four of the five Super Rugby coaches are gone as of the end of this month. There should be embarrassment that so many of them were allowed to stumble along without accountability to results for so long.

We’re a nation of supporters that passionately defend the mediocre but can’t acknowledge excellence. And until that changes, there will be no change in Super Rugby results.

Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images