DURBAN - The Cheetahs and the Kings will almost certainly be cut from Super Rugby next year after Sanzaar confirmed in a statement on Sunday that two South African teams would be axed in a restructured tournament in 2018.
One Australian team will also be cut while all five New Zealand franchises survive in what will be a 15-team format featuring four teams from South Africa, the existing New Zealand teams, four from Australia, one from Japan and one from Argentina.
SARU CEO Jurie Roux said that the newly-established Franchise Rugby Committee (made up of representatives of all six SA teams) will meet on Tuesday to finalise the criteria for selection. Their recommendation will go to the Executive Council. Once that recommendation is agreed it will need to be approved by the General Council of SA Rugby. SA Rugby said that it hoped it would be able to confirm its 2018 Super Rugby participants by late June.
It is assumed that franchises such as the Stormers, Bulls, Lions and Sharks will be safe ... and that leaves the less economically viable Cheetahs and Kings, both regular underperformers in the competition.
The decision to reduce Super Rugby competitors by three teams was unanimously agreed by the four Sanzaar partners (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina) after a nine-month process in which all stakeholders were consulted.
“Fans, media and broadcasters have spoken and we have listened to them,” said Roux. “The 18-team Super Rugby competition has not worked and we had to face up to that hard fact. The integrity of the format and the lack of competitiveness in too many matches were major issues that needed addressing.”
Roux argued that four strong SA teams would ultimately benefit the Springboks and that more money concentrated on fewer franchises would help keep top players in the country.
“From a South African rugby high performance perspective we’ve had to acknowledge that the dilution of talent and resources across six franchises - at a time when rand weakness has led to more departures to Europe and Japan - has seriously affected our ability to compete across the board.
“As a rugby nation we need strong franchises all of whom are in with a serious chance of challenging for the title and we could no longer say that. A reduction in the number of South African franchises was the unavoidable conclusion which, in time, will mean greater returns for SA Rugby.”
The Sunwolves have been retained and will join the Australian Conference while the Jaguares will be grouped with the South African teams.
Roux admitted a reduction in teams was a bitter pill for South Africa to swallow but his organisation had decided that retaining six teams was not sustainable.
“We have six strategic imperatives for 2017 - two of the most critical of which are Springbok performance and financial sustainability,” he said.
Roux said the large number of South Africans playing overseas had hastened the decision:
“There are about five or six Super Rugby squads’ worth of South Africans... In 2015, 257 South Africans appeared for leading teams overseas; last year it was 313 - including 65 Springboks. There were eight Van der Merwes, seven Du Preez’s and six Du Plessis’s alone! That has to have had an impact on competitiveness.”
The winners of each conference plus the five teams with the greatest number of log points will qualify for the play-offs.
SA franchises will play teams from both the Australian and New Zealand conferences every year although the duration of the available ‘window’ - between the end of the compulsory rest period and the start of the international season - means that there are not enough weeks to play all teams.