Tony McKeever

Saru’s Super Rugby riddle solved

It is agonising to watch the South African Rugby Union (Saru) wrestle with what might appear a most complex solution to including the Eastern Cape in Super Rugby. Yet the solution to this is extraordinarily simple, delivering a non-conflict remedy that would otherwise decimate South African rugby to the benefit and advantage of the Kiwis, Australians and England (especially England, hosts of the Rugby World Cup in 2015).

You have to understand that firstly, one had to play by Saru’s rules and regulations as per the legal and binding agreements from 2005. When that did not work, in spite of being vindicated by the Cape High Court on August 4 2006, one secondly had to look at this riddle and remedy from every which way to ensure that neither Saru nor South Africa’s six Super Rugby franchises were negatively impacted or breached any broadcast or sponsor agreements.

The facts are that Sanzar will simply not permit the expansion of the Super 15 to Super 16 in 2013 because, quite simply, Sanzar has broadcast and sponsor agreements in place till 2015.

Similarly, all five South African Super Rugby franchises have player and sponsor agreements in place till 2015. There is not one piece of paper that obligates Saru to include the Southern Kings in the Super 15 next year.

On June 8 2005 SA Rugby, now Saru, took a legal and binding President’s Council decision that included the three Eastern Cape rugby unions in Super Rugby from 2006. In attendance at that meeting was current president Oregan Hoskins, James Stoffberg – chairman of the competitions committee, and four other presidents, as well as CFO Basil Haddad, who are still on the Saru exco today.

Under Hoskins and backed by the other five Super Rugby franchises, they decided to exclude three of their 14 rugby unions, namely Border Rugby, EP Rugby and SWD from Super Rugby in 2007 and 2008 with entrenchment and then a cumbersome, ill-thought-out promotion relegation match thereafter.

It was always going to be about what the team sitting out was going to do and, needless to say, that was never addressed. Now, here we are today with Saru facing the cannibalisation of its franchises, to the detriment of SA rugby, pondering the same dilemma.

Seven years later, there is still no blueprint or ‘will’ from Saru to include these three rugby unions in Super Rugby and they have suffered from this exclusion. In fact, Sanzar will not alter its Super 15 competition format until post 2015, effectively excluding these three rugby unions until then.

Despite the best of intentions from SA Rugby and the political and national will to see the introduction and inclusion of the three Eastern Cape unions in Super Rugby in 2013, after seven years there has been no coherent strategic pathway mapped out for either a promotion or relegation tournament. Nor has there been clarity regarding the financial resources required to underwrite the financial resource burden to SA Rugby as a result of the three Eastern Cape teams that have had no participation in Super Rugby for 12 years.

The Super 15 TV schedules are fixed from 2011-2015 with 5 teams per Sanzar union, so consideration instead should be given to each Sanzar union’s expansion with the addition of an extra team from 2016 onwards, which is where Saru should focus its attention.

Altering the existing Super 15 format will unleash a torrent of litigation from the existing five South African franchise participants and their sponsors against SA Rugby and the Eastern Cape unions, further draining resources and energies away from building SA Rugby’s players and unions.

An alternative pathway and strategy exists as a solution, which will:

• Defuse a potentially volatile and emotionally charged political and sporting powder keg in South Africa
• Equally and fairly develop SA Rugby’s three Eastern Cape rugby unions and their financial resources to make them independent
• Develop a pathway for the inclusion of the Eastern Cape unions into the Sanzar Super Rugby tournament from 2016
• Create new international viewership audiences to grow the game
• Establish a South African rugby presence from schools to universities in powerful new growth markets
• Establish new TV alliances and audiences for SuperSport and SABC to provide the necessary TV coverage

This alternative pathway and solution, with the introduction of a “Super 6 Series” international rugby tournament from June-August from 2012-2015 in a home (5 games) and away (5 games) series, will comprise of:

• Border Rugby – based out of Buffalo City (East London) stadium
• EP Kings – out of Mandela Bay Stadium
• SWD Eagles – out of Outeniqua Park
• “The SA Franchise-In-Waiting Team” – a Barbarians-styled team comprising emerging South African and Eastern Cape talent and overseas-based South African and opposing country players out of Mandela Bay Stadium
• USA #1: the top Western Conference team from the USA Rugby’s Premier Rugby tournament in the West Coast of the USA – San Francisco Golden Gate
• USA # 2: the top Eastern Conference team from the USA Rugby’s Premier Rugby tournament in the East Coast of the USA – Life University

Taking the top two Premier Rugby teams from the Eastern and Western Conference allows a rotation of their top two teams vying for these two berths, and offers a powerful incentive for the 12 USA Rugby Premier Rugby teams to grow their regional structures and teams.

In addition, the USA offers a significant market for South Africa to attract TV audiences, spectators and sponsor partners and the 12 Premier Rugby teams desire such an initiative.

The “Franchise-In-Waiting” team offers a team entity that retains South African player and coaching talent that might have been lost to our country, and this team could play the Maoris or some of the Australian and Argentina teams outside of the super rugby tournament windows, and be coached by Peter de Villiers so that his expertise is not lost to SA Rugby.

All involved in rugby agree on the significant benefits that would accrue to Border, EP & SWD which, in a matter of hours, need to be vetted and agreed on by the Competition Committee for further progress.

Rather than pursue an agenda of conflict, the Minister of Sport and Recreation now has the unique opportunity to stage an intervention and, in a day, with the participation of all stakeholders, deliver a solution of harmony and inclusiveness by endorsing and insisting that SARU implement a proposed “Super 6” international rugby tournament. This tournament would assist the growth and introduction of the three Eastern Cape teams, as well as all of SA Rugby, into “Super” rugby in preparation for winning the Rugby World Cup in 2015 and establishing a new improved Super Rugby tournament from 2016 and beyond.