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A road going nowhere

Fans of the MTN Lions will be understandably pleased to see their team back in Vodacom Super Rugby, but it is hard to disagree with their coach Johan Ackermann’s take that the system that got them back is flawed and that there are no real winners.

Indeed, Ackermann’s line echoed the same sentiment expressed by the relevant parties when his team’s demotion out of Super Rugby was confirmed just under a year ago – this is a road to nowhere. The Lions were obviously and rightly unhappy at being sent into the wilderness but you never heard any trumpeting of joy from the Kings officials either.

Instead their president Cheeky Watson complained that the promotion-relegations system introduced at the same time allowed his franchise no time to develop. What he said was just sheer logic to anyone who understands how hard it is for a new franchise to establish itself at Super Rugby level.

I wrote at the time that if the Kings’ promotion was going to be meaningful and attain the ends it was set to achieve, they would need a guaranteed three years so they could implement the long term planning that would be necessary.

No new players were going to sign up with the Kings for next year when their future was so uncertain, just as new players were reluctant to sign up this time in 2012 when their participation in this season’s competition still had to be confirmed.

And Ackermann is right when he says that his franchise is now in exactly the same position as the Kings were this time last year.

We are now well into the contracting window, and it is only now that the Lions can really start negotiating. It has already been confirmed they have lost Jaco Taute permanently to Western Province and it’s not completely beyond question that Elton Jantjies, Franco van der Merwe and others may decide on a long term future at the franchises they spent the 2013 Super Rugby season.

That the Lions haven’t been helped by their year in the wilderness was amply shown in the two promotion-relegation games. They deserved to win through on balance across the two matches, there is no question about that, but they never beat the Kings nearly as comprehensively as they would have a year ago. And a year ago it wasn’t as if they had just completed a successful Super Rugby season either.

The Lions, who are not exactly flush with cash at the moment, have been struggling for years now, and their immediate future has not been made any easier by 12 months of treading water. It would be a major surprise if they were not the whipping boys of the competition again next year, as they were for the last several seasons before their demotion.

As for the Kings, what becomes of them? They’re not even a Currie Cup premier division province, so they effectively find themselves plunged into a year of nothingness before they get a chance to play for their Super Rugby status again this time next year.

I can hear the dissenters who will be saying that they didn’t win the promotion-relegation games so it’s their fault, but let me remind those people that the Kings never got into Super Rugby in the first place on their rugby ability. They never played a promotion-relegation game to get into the competition.

Instead, their promotion was similar to the one that Natal were given by decree of the old SARB back in late 1986 – they were propelled back into the A Section of the Currie Cup by virtue of the fact that their presence was good for South African rugby (even in the B Section they had the third best crowd attendances in the country).

The Kings were promoted not because they were ready to smash everyone in sight in the 2013 Super Rugby season, but because of their potential to attract a large multiracial following and bring through black players. It was said often enough in the early weeks of the season, when they were surprising friend and foe – the crowds alone justified their inclusion.

I’m just back from a holiday in the Eastern Cape, and was reminded again while driving through the region en route to what used to be the Transkei just how vast and populated the region is. From a geographical perspective, they have as much right to be included as the Australian franchises who were also promoted without having to play any games to prove their readiness.

The exclusion of the Lions, who represent the economic heartland of South Africa, doesn’t make any sense either. In fact, it makes no sense at all that a stadium as large as Ellis Park only got to see its first really big rugby match of the season in August.

So who am I having a go at here? Sure, there has been weak leadership in SA rugby for a long time and that has been a massive contributing factor, but to my mind the good faith of the country’s partners on Sanzar needs to be questioned more than the local administrators need to be vilified.

The case for a sixth franchise has been argued over and over again with them but there is no hope for South Africa ever getting their way while the two Australasian nations gang up on them, as they have done for most of the way since 1996.

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