Politics, not love, steers our beloved game

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South Africa's Bryan Habana - so good, even playing in France won't deter the selectors. (AAP Image/NZN IMAGE, SNPA, David Rowland)

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The South African Rugby Union (SARU) has poured cold water – in emphatic fashion – on recent speculation that the Super Rugby will be divided into an Argentinian/African conference and an Australasian conference when contracts are renegotiated.

Elements of the South African and New Zealand media are suggesting the SARU has effectively issued a Super Rugby taunt to its SANZAR partners, but really it seems that it’s down to a few sub-editors scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of sensationalism.

Headlines included:

* Six teams or nothing in Super Rugby – Hoskins
* Saru give Sanzar a Super Rugby ultimatum
* South Africa demand six Super Rugby teams from 2016
* SARU issue Super Rugby taunt

SARU president Oregan Hoskins did go so far as to say that there would be absolutely no compromise on including a sixth South African team in the Super competition when the television contracts come up for renewal.

“As far as I am concerned, it is not even an issue for us, it is six or nothing when the new broadcast deal comes into effect,” he is reported to have said at an Ellis Park function hosting the Webb Ellis Cup as it makes its way back to the International Rugby Board (IRB) headquarters in Dublin, Ireland.

In essence, Hoskins is answering to his political masters. They want the Kings in the competition because of what the franchise can do for developing the black South African player base in the Eastern Cape, which is substantial.

Some of what Hoskins said might be construed as fighting talk.

“We have to do everything it takes to ensure our teams play in whatever competition – if it is not Sanzar, then we have to look north. So I am hoping that we are being accommodated within Sanzar. We are being told that we are being accommodated.”

The interesting bit however was a clear statement from Hoskins that SANZAR has not yet worked out a solution. Does that suggest the three unions are currently at a stalemate?

Reading between the lines on some of the reports, there is a desire for Argentina to participate, but that participation may be a hybrid team comprising Argentinian and Australian players.

Hoskins said he liked the idea of 18 teams: six each from New Zealand and South Africa and five from Australia, and perhaps an Argentine team or a team that came together from “putting our heads together and working something out”.

Good news for rugby fans, however, is that SARU would not settle for an Australasian and African/Argentine conference model.

“I can’t see the idea of having a Australasian conference and an African conference,” Hoskins said.

“South Africa is the partner and the brand which is the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere in terms of commercial value, brand value, bums on seats, television viewership, the number of players we have, etcetera.”

What can we take from this?

Firstly, that the quality of the competition will not be compromised by a two-conference model – good news for everybody.

And secondly, Australia (we hope) is going to be forced to develop its own domestic competition instead of relying on an Australasian conference Band-Aid – good news for Australia in the long run.

Negotiations, it seems, have a way to go.

South Africa, however, may be in a stronger bargaining position than in previous years for a couple of reasons:

1. New Zealand Rugby wants to play South African teams as a means of blooding future talent, and hence are unlikely to support Australia’s push for an exclusive Australasian conference
2. The break-up of the European competition offers some leverage to South Africa, if nothing else
3. South Africa, having backed the re-election of IRB President Bernard Lapasset in the December 2011 vote (when both the ARU and New Zealand Rugby Union voted for England’s Bill Beaumont) can possibly rely on the support of the IRB.

Oregan Hoskins is also vice-chairman of the IRB.

If anything, relying on IRB politics (as I’ve described it) is possibly clutching at straws at best. A report by Spiro Zavos on The Roar in 2011 maintains that the ARU never supported Beaumont, despite media reports that he did.

My ultimate point, however, is that politics in sports isn’t just a South African reality.

Politics – national, international and within the game itself – plays a massive part in shaping the future of the sport.

Egos, personalities, personal agendas, national interests, big salaries, perks… all of these are advanced before the good of the game itself.

So if you’re expecting solutions ‘for the good of the game of rugby union’ in the near future, don’t hold your breath.

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