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SARU painted into a tight corner

South African Rugby and politics have been synonymous in perpetuity – not just through the interference of government, but also the many unhealthy internal boardroom squabbles.

The history of the game is littered with examples where the national controlling body, currently called the SA Rugby Union, shot themselves in the foot.

Even during the seemingly tranquil reign of the late Danie Craven there were often undercurrents of discord and who can forget big Louis Luyt’s brazen decision to drag former President Nelson Mandela into court.

But seldom has the hierarchy painted themselves into such a tight corner as SARU did – at a special general meeting in Cape Town last month – with the thoughtless decision to foist the Southern Kings onto the Super Rugby stage… almost certainly at the expense of a well-established franchise.

Well, actually there is a perfect case study, in the failed attempt to pass off the Southern Spears as a legitimate Super Rugby franchise some years ago.

One would have thought SARU would have learnt from the numerous mistakes that resulted in a costly court case, after the SA Rugby President’s Council – on June 8, 2005 – promised the South Eastern Cape a Super Rugby franchise.

When the other franchises – much like their are doing again now – put their collective feet down and forced SA Rugby to backtrack on the decision, the Spears’ maverick CEO Tony McKeever dragged the organisation kicking and screaming to court. Apart from the more than R5-million that disappeared into a seemingly black hole, SA Rugby were left red-faced when  the court ruled in favour of McKeever.

The matter was eventually settled when the bankrupt ‘equity partners’ of the Spears – the South Western Districts, Border and Eastern Province – relinquished all rights to a franchise. It was a costly exercise, but it appear those lessons were not learnt.

When SARU announced last month that the Southern Kings would join Super Rugby in 2013, they left it up to the five current franchises – Bulls, Lions, Sharks, Cheetahs and Stormers – to find a solution to the likely impasse that will result when SANZAR formally decline their ‘request’ for expansion, to make room for the Kings.

SANZAR CEO Greg Peters has already ruled out the possibility of expanding Super Rugby from 15 to 16 teams, while Australian Rugby Union Chief Executive and SANZAR board member John O’Neill also pointed to the fact that they are in the second year of a five-year deal sold to the broadcasters – which states that it is a 15-team competition until 2015.

SARU Deputy President Mark Alexander may be making plenty of noise about ‘lobbying’ their SANZAR partners about a possible expansion, but Australia and New Zealand officials have made no secret of the fact that they won’t support changing a format that suits them.

And the five SA franchises have also put the ball back in SARU’s court with a cleverly-worded letter last week.

While SARU refuted reports that South Africa’s five franchises have threatened to boycott the 2013 Super Rugby season if any of the current five teams are excluded from the competition, it is worth having a second look at some of the wording of that letter.

The following phrases make it very clear how strongly the established franchises feel about the situation:
* That none of the existing franchises shall be prejudiced by such inclusion [of the Kings] in any way whatsoever;
* That none of the existing franchises shall be eliminated from the tournament in 2013 or at any stage thereafter as a result of the inclusion of the Kings;
* That SARU as custodian of the South African leg of the tournament will ensure that the Kings are included without prejudice to any of the existing franchises.

There is sure to be many statements about this in the weeks and months to come, but don’t be surprised if there is a repeat of the embarrassing developments that marked the Southern Spears eventual demise.

And already the media in Australia are having pot shots at South Africa over what they call the country’s “annual almighty whinge”.

The reason why they find it easy to mock the Japies, is because so often the national body behaves like a three-ring circus.

By Jan de Koning

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