South Africa’s Super Rugby teams could be playing for their place in next year’s competition after the country decided to include a new franchise in 2013.
While the South African Rugby Union hoped that the Port Elizabeth-based Southern Kings would simply be added to the championship, making it a Super 16 two years after it was extended to 15 teams, tournament organisers SANZAR have so far ruled out another expansion at this stage.
That means six South African teams will line up for five spots in 2013, raising the possibility of relegation this year for the first time in Super Rugby and causing unrest and reportedly a boycott threat from the country’s existing outfits.
SARU denied the boycott reports and said it will continue to lobby SANZAR to include all six South African teams, but the southern hemisphere body has shown no sign it will compromise on the number of teams until at least 2015.
The Southern Kings are the only South African team currently certain of their place next season after they were backed by SARU.
That leaves the short-term futures of South Africa’s current representatives in the competition, the three-time champion Bulls, the Sharks, Stormers, Lions and Cheetahs, in the balance – and dependent on SARU’s ability to change SANZAR’s mind ahead of a meeting of the body in late March.
The tournament was only just restructured last year when Melbourne Rebels were included as a 15th franchise and separate conferences were created in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
“We have looked at the 16 team option in the past and within our current format it just doesn’t work,” SANZAR chief executive Greg Peters told South African reporters in a telephone conference this week.
“It would be a big ask to move away from what we have sold to our broadcasters and commercial partners for five years.”
SARU responded by saying it would send a delegation, which would also include representatives from South Africa’s franchises, to present its case for six teams to its SANZAR counterparts in Australia and New Zealand.
South Africa’s rugby body faces an embarrassing problem – and an angry backlash from its own teams – if it fails to win over SANZAR.
In a joint letter to SARU this month, the Pretoria-based Bulls, Durban-based Sharks, Stormers of Cape Town, Johannesburg’s Lions and the Cheetahs from Bloemfontein made it clear they would not accept any of the current teams being “prejudiced” by a sixth South African competitor.
It is “imperative that none of the existing franchises shall be eliminated from the tournament in 2013 or at any stage thereafter as a result of the inclusion of the Kings,” they wrote in the letter.
SARU’s plea could be aided by the fact that South African broadcaster Supersport reportedly pays more to SANZAR than Fox Sports in Australia and Sky TV in New Zealand for broadcast rights.
South Africa also has bigger rugby audiences – both at its stadiums and for TV – than the other two southern hemisphere.
“What we have said is that we will always talk to our partners,” SANZAR’s Peters said.
The SARU delegation is set to travel to Sydney on March 17.