In April Sanzaar announced that Super Rugby would be restructured and comprise of a three-conference, 15-team format from the 2018 season onwards. The upshot of the decision is that two South African franchises will be chopped from the competition.
The Cheetahs and Southern Kings have been touted as the likeliest South African teams to lose their places in the tournament. I believe it would be a travesty because Bloemfontein is a breeding ground of talent, while it’s absolutely imperative for South African rugby to have a franchise in the Eastern Cape region because it’s the cradle of black rugby in South Africa.
Instead of cutting teams from the competition, the most logical solution would be for South African franchises to amalgamate. I would propose a merger between the Bulls and Lions and Cheetahs and Kings. For me, it’s a no-brainer that the Bulls and Lions should join forces as they are only 54 kilometres apart and could forge a strong single franchise from Gauteng.
Meanwhile, the Kings could amalgamate with the Cheetahs because they are also under threat. In that way we would have four strong South African Super Rugby franchises and something we can cope with. Owing to the massive player drain to Europe and Japan – last year 313 South African rugby players represented leading overseas-based clubs – I honestly believe we cannot have more than four competitive Super Rugby franchises in South Africa.
In turn, Australian rugby is clearly in crisis and they cannot afford five franchises. Truth be told, they should only boast three teams, but the bottom line is that it has been decided at boardroom level that they will have four franchises in the competition from 2018. The fact that they don’t have the player depth to sustain more than three Super Rugby franchises is irrelevant because that is the decision that Sanzaar have taken. We have to play the hand we have been dealt and find a solution that is in the best interests of South African rugby.
On the present constituents of Super Rugby, reducing the competition in terms of the number of teams is not a negative. The tournament has become diluted and lopsided, with the New Zealand franchises out on their own. It now rests with the men in suits at Saru to devise a strategy that will serve South African rugby in the long-term. From a transformation perspective, I don’t believe it’s viable to cut the Kings loose. The Kings can and should be a great South African rugby success story. We did extremely well in our maiden Super Rugby campaign in 2013 and it was a real pity that the team was relegated following that season. After a difficult return to Super Rugby in 2016, Deon Davids has done a very good job. The Kings have won three matches on the bounce this term and that is by and large with home-grown talent at their disposal. Now that the region is just starting to regain its momentum, I feel it would be manifestly wrong for the Kings to be prevented from dining at the top table.
There has been talk of the Cheetahs and Kings potentially forming part of a revamped Pro12 competition. However, I foresee that scenario proving hugely problematic – a helluva lot of travel would have to occur – and I maintain that the future of the two South African teams in question lies in Super Rugby. The combined franchise could be based out of the Eastern Cape with an equal distribution of matches split between Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth.
Strong leadership is now required from SA Rugby. The administrators must decide what they want to do about South African rugby. Do they want to move it on by merging two-thirds of South Africa’s Super Rugby franchises or do they want to go back to where we were before?
Solomons served as the Kings’ director of rugby from 2010 to 2013 and drove the revival in the region. The former Springbok assistant coach spent just over three years in charge of Edinburgh and led the team to the 2015 European Rugby Challenge Cup final. He most recently offered his expertise as a coaching consultant to Bristol in the Premiership.