The (un)wise sages suggesting the amalgamation of Super Rugby franchises are either young or have very short memories because most of us know that South Africa has been down this road before - with disastrous consequences, not the least of which was that horror of a 1990s Western Stormers jersey, which remains one of the great fashion crimes.
Seriously, though, it just did not work, even if we recall that in the latter stages of the Cats, former All Blacks coach Laurie Mains managed to whip the Cheetahs-Lions collaboration into a competitive unit.
The problem with the regional system in South Africa back in the late ‘90s was that it was a copy of the system adopted by the New Zealand Rugby Union.
Copying the Kiwis was the brainchild of Riaan Oberholzer, CEO of Saru at the time, with the idea being that the talent net would be spread across the entire country and the odd star outside the major unions would play Super Rugby.
This idea was erroneous on two counts. Firstly, any player worth his salt was already at one of the five major unions and, secondly, geographically South Africa and New Zealand are vastly different. The whole of New Zealand could fit into the Cape Province, with square miles to spare. So for the Kiwis the regional system worked because the unions making up a franchise were less than an hour’s drive apart.
But we nevertheless adopted the regional system and it was dead in the water because for most of the new franchises, there was no common ground (almost literally) between the contributing unions.
Lets us take the Coastal Sharks for instance, a good example because that franchise indeed included what is today the Kings. The Natal Sharks were obviously the anchor union at that time and the tributaries trickling into the main river were Border and Eastern Province.
Durban, East London and Port Elizabeth were the cities where the Coastal Sharks would have their home games, with Kings Park getting the majority of the games. The coach was Ian McIntosh and the assistant coach was EP’s Allister Coetzee.
Well Mac had little faith in the EP and Border players and over three years just about the only players from those unions that got playing time were scrumhalf Chad Alcock (EP) and Border’s Russell Bennett.
The fans in East London and Port Elizabeth felt their players were marginalised and when the Sharks played “home” games at the ramshackle Basil Kenyon and Boet Erasmus Stadiums, the fans cheered the opposition.
I remember vividly how livid Gary Teichmann was after his team had lost to the Hurricanes in East London where, during the game, the stadium DJ had played the “Hurricanes .... Hurricanes” ditty all match, and the locals lustily sang along. So much for a home game for the Sharks.
A whole book could be written on the Cats catastrophe. Suffice to say the Cheetahs players heavily resented being treated as the poor relations by having to stay in apartments in Johannesburg, and again there was the problem of home games.
At Ellis Park, it was a home game for half of the Cats team and in Bloemfontein, the same went.
In short, the Cheetahs must remain the Cheetahs; the Kings, the Kings, and Saru must find a way for all of our franchises to remain in Super Rugby. With a bit of luck, the Aussies might solve the problem for us.
The business consortium that owns the Melbourne Rebels is taking Sanzaar to court regarding the speculation that their team is to be axed when Super Rugby shrinks from 18 to 15 next year.
Likewise the other Australian team that has a gun to its head, the Force, is heading for the courts.
If the Rebels and the Force win their day in court, Sanzaar will be forced to keep them in Super Rugby, and it should follow that South Africa should not have to axe two teams.
Sanzaar should rather expand than contract. Instead of going from 18 to 15, add three more teams (possibly from Samoa, Fiji and Tonga) and split the competition into two 10-team divisions, and the top finishers from those divisions make up your quarter-finals and so on.
Simple and painless.