In a recent SANZAAR conference, it was decided that South Africa will lose two Super Rugby franchises, while Australia will also forego one of their franchises in order for the competition to revert to a 15-team format.
The Southern Kings are one of the teams that have been heavily touted as one of the two teams to be axed from Super Rugby in 2018. In light of recent performances, however, it should be made obvious that the loss of the Southern Kings will likely mean more woe and dread for South African rugby than originally thought.
Admittedly, the Southern Kings have not performed well in the competition; never finishing in the top half of the log, winning two matches in a season prior to the 2017 season, and putting up little fight against the more historically dominant franchises. However, this appears to change over last few months.
The Kings romped home to their largest win ever whilst simultaneously winning their first ever consecutive match and breaking their win record of two in a season by winning their third match of the 2017 season against a woeful Rebels side. This personal record, coupled with the Kings’ all round competitiveness in the competition up to this point has led to them scoring multiple losing bonus points and recording 15 log points for the season thus far.
In contrast, the Cheetahs and the Bulls both have less log points, with the Bulls scrambling to 14 log points while the Free State side has a measly 10 points. Both of these unions have struggled to find success in the competition this season.
The Bulls have not looked energetic on either attack or defence this year, with only a few slight glimpses of the team that once dominated the South African franchises shining through. The culmination of the Bull’s woes this season has to be their shock loss to the Sunwolves out of Japan; a match comparable to the Springboks’s loss to Japan in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The Bulls look aimless with ball, and have seldom looked like they want to win matches as they have often looked defeated after conceding one or two tries. They are far from the side that has won three Super Rugby titles.
The Cheetahs, by contrast, have looked alive and determined for 60 minutes of each game, showing great determination and skill, and often pulling out a commanding lead over their opponents. However, as proven in their last outing against the Highlanders, the Cheetahs cannot successfully close out a match. They conceded three tries in the last five minutes to give up a 20-point lead and lose against the New Zealand franchise.
Therefore, the Bulls and the Cheetahs should not feel any more comfortable of their place in the 2018 Super Rugby completion than the Kings, as they have not performed any better than the Eastern Cape franchise this year.
Performance should not be the only factor considered, however, as player development and transformation should be a significant factor for SARU to consider before a decision can be made. Neither the Cheetahs nor Bulls have developed a significant number of players of colour that have the skills and abilities to compete at a professional level beyond the Currie Cup. The Kings, on the other hand, have produced numerous players from in and around the Eastern Cape that can be developed into future Springboks, including Lukhanyo Am (now playing for the Sharks), Malcolm Jaer, Makazole Mapimpi, and Andisa Ntsila. These have all have showed that they would not look out of place in an international set-up in years to come. The Eastern Cape is full of such players, and by promoting the Kings as a player development team, SARU would show that they are committed to the successful transformation of South African Rugby without compromising performance.
I would therefore like to see the continued backing from SARU of the Southern Kings as a Super Rugby franchise, and axing the under-performing Cheetahs and Bulls as historical performance should not be a factor when current attitudes are a problem. I believe that if the Bulls and Cheetahs were axed from Super Rugby, players with superior skills in those unions would easily flow into the other unions, strengthening their depth and making them more competitive against the stronger New Zealand sides, while the Bulls and Cheetahs would look to participate in a competition involving certain Northern Hemisphere franchises.
The Kings deserve to remain in Super Rugby in 2018, as they have only just begun to develop their talents and players to become competitive. I believe that given at least one more season at top level, they will start fighting in the top half of the log.