It is a staggering fact of Super 14 that in the past three years South African teams have managed to win just 12 of 67 matches in Australasia; a sorry return of less than 18 per cent. That percentage was boosted by results that went the way of the Pretoria Bulls (still the only unbeaten team in this season's tournament) and the Natal Sharks, who both pulled off splendid away wins at the weekend. Yet these successes don't gloss over simmering unhappiness in South Africa over the Super 14 and indeed the Sanzar alliance itself.
South African teams have long complained about the inherent bias of the competition that frequently sees teams from the republic having to travel overseas for four or five weeks. Teams from Australia and New Zealand have no such impediment thanks to their convenient geography. The latest row has been brought into sharp focus by the standoff between Australia and South Africa. Both countries want an extra team in an expanded competition, but there's room for only one.
Inviting a team from Japan or the Pacific Islands has also been mooted. Moreover, Australia want a later start to the tournament, a move that would compromise South Africa's robust Currie Cup provincial competition. South Africa is standing firm, strengthened by the knowledge that their TV revenue towards Sanzar constitutes a far larger chunk than that of its two partners. To say there's been a fair bit of anger around the issue is being diplomatic. Relations are said to be deeply fractured and near breaking point.
One area in which the three countries have reached broad consensus is around the laws, more commonly known as the ELVs (Experimental Law Variations). Most haven't worked and have served only to dilute the good standard of the Super 14. Take Friday's match between the Bulls and the Hurricanes in which pedantic referee Matt Goddard saw fit to award 35 penalties in the first 20 minutes, not to mention the five players he sent to the sin-bin.
The most remarkable result of the weekend was the Johannesburg Lions defeat of the CA Brumbies in Johannesburg, the first win for the Lions over the Australian team in five seasons. The Canberra franchise are terrible on the road, but expectations were that they would be too strong for the Lions, who hit the headlines after their forwards coach, Leon Boshoff, was suspended for allegedly making racist remarks to the team's black players after the defeat to the Cape Town Stormers.
Boshoff is believed to have launched a tirade against the team, singling out a number of black players. He allegedly remarked that they were not good enough but would not have to worry because their skin colour guaranteed selection. This precipitated a flood of bad publicity, coach Eugene Eloff remarking that it had been the toughest week of his life as a rugby coach. Too true. The rumour mill had it that failure against the Brumbies would have him sacked.
Instead, the axe is likely to fall on Boshoff when he faces a disciplinary hearing today. If the Lions remain under-powered, what of the Cheetahs? Still winless in 2009, there's a growing clamour for them to be killed off. It's a harsh call for a small franchise that produces fine players, but there are powerful political imperatives to create a Super 14 team that serves the traditional hotbed of black rugby in the Eastern Cape.
Already named the Southern Kings, their first match will be against the British and Irish Lions in June. Whether fair or not, political expedience could yet be the death knell of the Cheetahs. @Email:email@example.com