Lions coach John Mitchell has urged the South African Rugby Union (Saru) to move swiftly in deciding about the make-up of South Africa’s Super Rugby participants next year.
As things stand, the Southern Kings from the Eastern Cape will join the competition in 2013, with one of the current five South African franchises set to fall out of the competition. Talk in many circles is that the worst performing team this season – or over the course of the last few seasons – will be the one to lose out.
And if recent history, or this year’s results, is used to make the decision, the Lions could very well be the team in danger of not being involved in Super Rugby next year.
Mitchell said on Sunday, on the eve of taking his team to Australasia for their four-match assignment, that Saru, and those tasked with coming up with a solution to the Super Rugby problem, would have to think long and hard before deciding the wayforward.
“It’s not an easy decision to make ... and hopefully Saru will take into account our injury crisis this year and how it has derailed our campaign,” said Mitchell. “The players are also playing under considerable stress and many are possibly self-preserving at this stage, looking after themselves, not knowing where they might be this time next year. They have families and partners and I feel for Saru to have made the decision they have and to delay finalising what’s actually going to happen is ludicrous.
“The players have been hung out to dry.”
Former Springbok coach Jake White, who helped out at the Lions in 2009 and is now in charge of the Brumbies – the last team to beat the Lions, on Friday night – also expressed his concern that the Lions may lose their Super Rugby status.
“I hope it doesn’t happen. The Lions come from some time back in the 1800s and there’s a lot of history at the union. The Brumbies only started up in 1996 ... there’s over 100 years difference between the teams and it would be an injustice if you don’t have a team that’s over 100 years old as part of Super Rugby.
“No-one should be chucking those years out the window. But it’s a tough call to make ... six simply doesn’t go into five.”
He agreed with Mitchell that the uncertainty around the Lions’ future was affecting several other departments at the union. “I don’t want to get political but how hard must it be to try and contract players for next year if the Lions don’t even know if they’re going to be in or out of Super Rugby? How hard must it be to secure a sponsor? These are the things everyone at Saru must look at.
“They’re not doing anyone any favours with the uncertainty. There’s nothing worse than not knowing what’s going to be happening a year down the line.”
Said Mitchell: “The Lions are doing some great work behind the scenes. Lions president Kevin de Klerk has put some good things in place and there’s a new partner (Altmann Allers) but there comes a point in time when money has to be spent on players, to strengthen the playing squad. But I suppose they’re also inhibited by not knowing what is happening next year.”
One option, of course, to prevent the demise of the Lions (or the Cheetahs, for that matter) is for two teams to again merge, as was the case with the Lions and Cheetahs for a few years, some time ago.
History tells us neither the Lions nor the Cheetahs have done much in Super Rugby on their own, but as a combined team – the Cats – they played in two semi-finals in 2000 and 2001.
Mitchell says he’d be open to the idea. “If it means the Lions can still be part of Super Rugby, why not? If it comes to us having to join forces with the Cheetahs then the call must be made so we can get on with it.
“The strategy should always be to put the strongest teams on the field and a combined team with the Cheetahs would be a very strong team. Going forward there’s little chance of the Lions and Cheetahs winning Super Rugby on their own because they don’t have enough quality depth. Both teams are individually very good, but if they combined we’d have a very, very strong side, with depth.
“And it would just be for Super Rugby ... in the Currie Cup they can again play as the Lions and Cheetahs. I see no reason why it shouldn’t work.” – The Star