The Southern Kings play with huge commitment, but hand on heart, would any of their players make the Springbok team, asks the writer. Photo: Richard Huggard, BackpagePix
Here’s a novel thought. Line up the top 180 professional rugby players in South Africa and put them through a skills and fitness drill. Have them go through everything required of a pro rugby player and give them an assessment.

Take the top 120 performers and give them jobs in Super Rugby. Say thanks to the rest and send them on their way.

This may seem extreme, but watching some of the play by SA teams last weekend was often an exercise in frustration as even established players knocked on, passed forward and showed little tactical appreciation. And so it goes.

Against this backdrop, we have the stark situation of two domestic Super Rugby teams facing the chop. The bleating was loudest last weekend when the Kings heroically upset the Sharks. Predictably, the call rang out to save the Kings, presumably because it is they who appear to be most at risk under the new dispensation.

Yet in this age of cold cash and hard decisions, there’s little room for sentiment. The game’s structures must change if Super Rugby is to thrive. Moreover, the talent is spread too thinly both here and in Australia.

The Kings are battlers and play with huge commitment, but hand on heart, who can say they have a single player worthy of a place in a Springbok team?

The point isn’t to denigrate a team which flourishes despite the odds, but to re-emphasise the reality that the depth at elite level remains worryingly limited.

Just look across the pond to New Zealand for context. The Crusaders have a run of injuries and retirements, and yet continue to produce excellence, regardless. There are no easy games when we play the Kiwis.

Rather like a visit to the dentist to relieve an abscess, the pain SA rugby must endure to help correct Super Rugby will be worth it in the end. Having just four teams will sharpen the senses and put real pressure on players to lift their games.

With fewer openings for players, fewer journeymen and veterans will find themselves thrust into the limelight. This is no bad thing when you consider how SA teams have routinely had to bow to the superiority of New Zealand teams. Something must change.

No team should have a divine right to be in Super Rugby, but age-old provincialism and power bases suggest that the big four – Sharks, Stormers, Lions and Bulls – will remain. The real anomaly is how two such powerful sides, historically at least, can exist and yet be just 60km apart.

The Lions and the Bulls ought to have combined 20-odd years ago, but self-interest and tribal loyalties ensure they live on as separate (and occasionally formidable) franchises. It could never happen now.

Fresh mergers have been proposed, one of which suggested the Kings and the Cheetahs should combine. The King Cheetahs has a nice ring to it, but probably wouldn’t work. As the creation of the Cats in 1998 – an amalgamation of the Cheetahs and Lions – showed, cultural differences were too great an impediment to success.

It’s not all doom and gloom for the franchises that will soon dip out. There are ongoing talks with overseas tournaments to find a home for them.

This would be an elegant situation for two reasons. The first is that no team deserves to be left in the wilderness. The other is that going north – on the assumption that inclusion would be European-based – is far superior logistically than what occurs in Super Rugby.

The travel wouldn’t wipe our players out and it would energise our rugby with something new to savour.

Make no mistake, European organisers would also welcome a South African flavour; new markets bring new opportunities.

Certainly, the Kings cannot be killed off altogether. The Eastern Cape is the heartland of black rugby and players must have something meaningful to aspire to.

It’s not enough that the finest black players routinely get picked off by the big franchises. They need a home of their own, and the region’s fans deserve to be served by a team operating at the top level. Whether this is Super Rugby or European rugby matters little.

Whatever happens, SA rugby’s tectonic plates are moving. Hold on tight.

Sunday Tribune

Like us on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter