South Africa to decide future

After what seems an age of painful silences or meaningless statements from Sanzaar powerbrokers, next week should finally provide some clarity around Super Rugby's short term future.

Three weeks ago in London agreement was reached around the Sanzaar board table to cut three teams and reduce to a 15-team competition next year. But with so many stakeholders involved, it is not that simple and by no means a guaranteed outcome.

As far as immediate decision-making goes, New Zealand sits largely on the outer, and Australia's hands are tied. Hence why the Australian Rugby Union continue to say nothing worth repeating despite credible reports the Western Force are set for the chop.

A merger between the Rebels and Brumbies may not be out of question, any of which could well be followed by court action and player strikes.

Right now South Africa hold all the cards. Their April 6 general meeting is expected to provide the first major indication of whether Sanzaar will get their new-found wish of 15 teams, which happens to mirror New Zealand's preference.

In the face of staunch criticism and ongoing uncertainty, Sanzaar insiders remain confident the plan to stage a 15-team competition can be pushed through by the time they next meet in May. Those outside the tent remain skeptical.

That the South African Rugby Union has agreed in principal to cut two teams represents a significant backflip. During the last controversial expansion, where the Sunwolves and Jaguares were included last year, SA Rugby stressed the need for the Southern Kings to be reinstated as their sixth team.

Since then, what was apparent to most outside Africa has hit home there, too. The continued exodus of South African players overseas has seen eroded depth become the chief concern, one that's clearly had a negative impact on overall performance.

South Africa's struggles and, indeed, their worryingly sharp regression was evident with the Springboks, who endured their worst year in 2016 with eight losses from 12 tests, through to Super Rugby.

SA Rugby now realise it was a mistake to spread their playing - and coaching - talent so thinly.

Notwithstanding government influence and political pressures around the importance of embracing the black community in Eastern Cape, there seems no compelling rugby argument for the Kings to remain part of Super Rugby beyond this year. SA Rugby and the local union just can't get things right.

Then there is the financial situation. SA Rugby just announced a loss of 23.3 million Rand (NZ$2.5m) after a year in which they lost three sponsors.

Resources are stretched, and one theory is South Africa needs to follow New Zealand by creating separate Super Rugby entities detatched from the provinces. Otherwise, it could lead to similar financial problems such as Otago's ownership of the Highlanders.  

Viewership and attendance figures are also said to be down, so powerful broadcaster SuperSport, which has ownership in some teams, may be supportive of the national union's vision.

The reasoning for reduction in South Africa therefore appears sound, but it gets super messy when deciding which second team could be axed.

While the Cheetahs seem the obvious target, given their historically poor Super Rugby showings, their chief executive, Harold Verster, has claimed the Currie Cup champions are safe.

There's talk of a possible merger between the neighbouring Lions and Bulls, but that scenario would lead to an inevitable outcry from both sides of the Gauteng region.

A promotion/relegation lifeline could possibly be extended to those teams cut. That would see them compete in the concurrently run SuperSport Rugby Challenge and duke it out with the worst-performing fourth side annually.

Invariably, though, that doesn't work as top tier players flood away from relegated, semi professional teams.  

Emphasising the unrest, former Springbok Brendan Venter, now defence coach of Italy, voiced a valid point that South Africa's significant broadcast venue should no longer be channelled out of the country to help prop up the competition. It will fall on deaf ears.

Like the other three Sanzaar partners, South Africa is locked into the existing broadcast agreement - whatever the competition structure - until 2020. But Venter is not alone in believing South Africa should ditch Super Rugby and venture north when that ends, creating further insecurity.

For now, a week out from the critical April 6 meeting and no firm decisions are thought to have been made about the second team that could be cut.

SA Rugby's final direction carries major implications for Australia and New Zealand. If they decide ditching two teams is too hard, the ARU's preference to drop one team is likely to be scrapped, and Super Rugby could be left with the shambolic status quo.

Either way verbal punches are sure to be thrown.

While New Zealand plays the waiting game, South Africa and Australia appear to be bracing themselves for a pitchfork barrage should they progress with the agreed way forward.

Don't hold your breath for risk of carking it, but all should become slightly clearer late next week.

Photo by: Gallo Images (A meeting in South Africa this week is expected to decide the future of Super Rugby).