No easy answer to Super 14 riddle
They were calling it The Longest Day and in many ways it was apt that the process of sifting through the arguments and counter-arguments of the various Super 14 bidders should be likened to the epic war movie of the same name.
Afterwards, after many hours of listening to the various franchises tell us how they were
going to help the Springboks by transforming the game and how they were going to make more
money than Rockerfella Rich, I felt a bit like the Robert Mitchum character in the movie,
which dramatized the Allied landings on D-Day.
Of all the last scenes in a war movie, this was the one that best summed up the futility
of war. Mitchum, playing an older officer, is lying wounded with a younger soldier
somewhere beyond the beaches of Normandy towards the end of that historic day.
The two characters swop stories and experiences for a while. Then the Mitchum character
comments: “It has been quite a day hasn’t it?” before nodding to himself and then
following up with: “Yes it has. I wonder who won.”
The happenings in the Western Province boardroom were not quite as dramatic or bloody as
those on the beaches of Normandy over 60 years ago, but the combatants would all have
ended the day wondering whether they had been part of a rewarding, noble effort to
liberate the game in their region or whether it was just an exercise in futility.
It is my hunch that none of the two major protagonists, the Eastern Cape and the Central
Cheetahs, are going to get what they want in its pure form. That there are going to be
dissatisfied customers at the end of the process is because it is a complicated situation
which might require administrators to step out of their provincialistic mindsets if a
proper resolution is to be reached.
For the big difference between the film of the Normandy invasion and the Rugby Boardroom
Epic was that in the latter it was much more difficult to distinguish who the goodies and
the baddies were.
Both the Eastern Cape and the Central Cheetahs provided compelling arguments. Both of
their presentations were well received by the audience and by the committee.
As you would expect, the Eastern Cape line had a strong transformation emphasis. The
stress was on growth of the game into areas where there is maximum growth potential, and
on this basis, it was really hard to pick holes in their argument.
For those who don’t know, the Eastern Cape is the one area in this country where rugby has
historically been the preferred sport of black Africans (this was the term settled on by
the adjudication committee, so I will use it too).
So far this area has been the major nursery for black talent in rugby, and as the Eastern
Cape delegation reminded us, it really would be a fallacious argument to suggest the
Cheetahs should get the Super 14 franchise on the basis that Bloemfontein has in Grey
College the most successful rugby school in terms of producing Springboks.
The Eastern Cape has many great schools with strong rugby traditions. Let’s start off with
one of the least known of them, Graeme College in Grahamstown, which produced Hennie le
Roux, before proceeding up through Muir College (the prodigiously talented Du Plessis
brothers) and then through such well known rugby hatcheries as Kingswood College, St
Andrews College, Queens College, Dales College, Framesby and Selborne before ending at
Grey High in Port Elizabeth.
It was somewhat ironic that one of the main Cheetahs delegates, Rassie Erasmus, was in
fact initially a product of the Despatch rugby factory. These schools are now not just
producing very good white rugby players, which they still do, but are sending through
black talent with conveyer-belt regularity.
Everyone tells me that if you go to Dale or Queens on Founders Weekend to watch the big
match you will be shocked, but also extremely heartened, by the multi-racial nature of
both the teams on the field and the crowd watching the action.
These are compelling arguments for giving the Eastern Cape a piece of the Super 14 pie. It
is just too large an area, and too great a potential growth opportunity for rugby, for it
to be ignored.
But then Erasmus, the former Cheetahs captain and capped 39 times for the Springboks, did
also make a good point when he suggested that had he not left the Eastern Cape and gone to
Bloemfontein, he may never have become the rugby player he was.
There is no denying that when it comes to producing talent, the rugby people of
Bloemfontein have the Midas touch. Year after year the other provinces plunder that region
for rugby talent (as indeed they do the Eastern Cape at age-group level), and year after
year the Cheetahs somehow remain competitive.
As Erasmus says, there is no sound rugby argument why the Lions, who lose to the Cheetahs
more often than they win, should have been the host union of the Cats. But of course money
does talk, and the Cats have Ellis Park and Johannesburg, just as the Sharks, who produce
maggots in terms of home grown talent, will somehow survive through their current bumbling
on the basis that they have a really impressive stadium and own the best rugby party in
The difference between the Cheetahs presentation and the Eastern Cape one was predictable
– the Cheetahs had facts at their finger-tips, hard evidence to support their claims,
while the Eastern Cape might be accused by their critics of not having enough meat on the
bones of their argument.
There again, former Springbok Garth Wright, as part of the Eastern Cape delegation, was
also correct when he pointed out that Perth was not chosen to be the fourth Australian
franchise on the basis that it was a particularly big or rich city or that it had good
It was chosen because, with nearly 100 000 South Africans in it, it was the
area where rugby was most likely to grow (as opposed to Melbourne, where there are too
many rival codes and not enough of a rugby culture for it to really take hold).
Those who argue against the Eastern Cape because there are no players from that region
currently in the top flight of players in South Africa should also think again. Many of
the top players have the Eastern Cape in their roots (like Mark Andrews, Os du Randt and
Hennie le Roux all did), and it should not be forgotten that when the highly successful
ACT Brumbies franchise first came into being there were precious few people in the squad
who hailed from the Australian Capital Territories.
But then the Brumbies in those days, and Perth now, were not up against an established
rugby factory like Bloemfontein in the battle for a place in the Super competition.
It is all very complicated, and frankly I don’t see how either of the two claims can
really be ignored. That is why some kind of compromise might be the best way forward, and
I know it is being suggested by people in high places.
There was a lot of criticism last year in this column for the new Currie Cup format. But
the suggestion from the adjudication committee that bigger, richer unions help out the
smaller ones in a bigger way through loaning personnel and a more equitable spread of
finances could hold the key to unlocking the problems addressed by the various
It is not easy though, and might explain to some extent why South Africa are still trying
to find their fifth Super 14 team while the fourth Australian side is already busy
recruiting players. It might also explain why this piece of writing has developed into The