The nightmare the Kings have created
The sudden emergence of the Southern Kings as genuine contenders on the Vodacom Super Rugby scene could have far-reaching and (for some) nightmare ramifications for the future of the professional game in this country.
Now before all the Kings supporters get up in arms about that intro – this column is not about the Kings. It is rather about the scenario that could play out should the Kings deny themselves a promotion-relegation game, or end up on the winning side.
And to be honest, no blame should ever go to the Kings. They have been presented with an uphill struggle, have responded brilliantly and have truly presented a strong case for their inclusion in Super Rugby. Well coached and playing with passion, it’s hard not to like them these days.
But while their success should be celebrated, take a look at the other side of the coin – and the possible ramifications of Saru’s decision to try and make six fit into five. It may sound alarmist, but the scenarios have the potential to change the very nature of our local game, with casualties along the way.
But let’s start at the beginning. The assumption that the Lions and Kings would play off in the promotion-relegation game in July has been firmly blown out of the water by the Kings' form on tour. The South African conference is now so clogged that it is almost impossible at this stage to predict not only a winner, but also who will fall to the bottom to face the Lions.
In any case, the Lions are not in a good space at the moment. While their exit from Super Rugby was dressed up as a chance to face “the Lions Challenge” with a tour to North America and a host of top-class international opposition to prepare them for the promotion-relegation match, it hasn’t turned out that way.
The opposition has so far been poor, the American tour was called off because of "doubts of the quality of the opposition” and prospects of good opposition – quality opposition – before the run-in to the promotion-relegation match seem slim. Even though they will face the Stormers and Sharks in the test window in June, those teams are hardly likely to send anything stronger than a Vodacom Cup line-up for the matches.
Furthermore the Lions' “loan” players are struggling in their respective franchises, with Jaco Taute already out for the season, Elton Jantjies not enjoying a happy time in the Cape and Lionel Mapoe and Callie Visagie not reaching the heights they would have wanted at the Bulls. The only positive is Franco van der Merwe, whose move to Durban may well become permanent one of these days.
With all this in mind, imagine how frightening the prospect of the promotion-relegation match has become for the Lions. The consequences of losing that game would be disastrous for the Johannesburg union.
The Lions have pinned everything – yes, everything – on winning that promotion-relegation game. If they fall short, another year in the wilderness will certainly kill off their spot as a “test-match union”. Another year in the wilderness will strip them bare of their sponsors, season-ticket holders, income and most importantly, players. It will relegate them to the ranks of those at the lower echelon of the B-section.
It will see the once hallowed ground of Ellis Park become too expensive to play at, and the team will most likely wither away. No overseas competition is open for entry and barring a change in Sanzar’s own rules, no expansion is likely until 2016.
Likewise should the Lions win, and another franchise lose, the consequences would be disastrous. Most of the top four franchises (other than the Kings) not only have outside investment, they have sponsorship contracts worth tens of millions. They furthermore have thousands of season-ticket holders and a player budget that is worth close to R60-million in some cases.
Should one of those franchises – which will be hampered by injuries – lose a promotion-relegation match, it could easily tilt the franchise close to bankruptcy, and with the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers all contributing more than 30 of the 36 Boks at the moment, could have far-reaching consequences in terms of a player exodus.
In the end, one franchise will be hurt by all this, whether it is the Kings – who have performed so valiantly – the Lions or another franchise. The move to bring six into five will have some major consequences that weren’t predicted when those in charge were mulling over the move.
One can only hope that a contingency plan is in the works, because simply allowing things to run their course could be disastrous for whoever loses that promotion-relegation match.