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Peter Williams: South African rugby is in a very delicate, almost unstable condition

Somehow the sight of the turf at famous old Ellis Park in Johannesburg being wrecked by scrummaging in the Lions – Hurricanes Super Rugby game yesterday morning summed up the state of rugby in the country.

While not completely wrecked, it is in a very delicate, almost unstable condition and after the latest edicts from the Sports Minister there, results may not improve for a while. 

This latest round of matches sheeted home just how bad the South African Super teams are.

Not only did the Lions get thrashed at home by the Hurricanes, five of six teams from the republic lost - with the final humiliation being the woeful Kings annihilated 73-27 by the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.

It is now patently obvious that South Africa do not have enough quality players to field six teams in this competition, especially with so many star players now in Europe.

The Springbok team which started the World Cup semi-final against the All Blacks last October contained only three overseas players – the now retired, then Japan based, halfback Fourie du Preez, Bath lock Francois Low and Toulon wing Bryan Habana.

That's changed, or is soon to change. J- P Pietersen is off to Leicester later this year, Duane Vermeulen is already in Toulon, Schalk Burger's joining Saracens and Bismarck du Plessis is at Montpelier.

Where a South African player actually plies his trade is irrelevant to the strength of the Springbok side because the SARU doesn’t have a home-based player only selection policy.

But that was the first nail in the coffin of South African Super Rugby teams.

The second will surely be the edict of the South African government that because not enough has been done to "transform" rugby in the country, there will be consequences.

Fifty percent of the Springboks must be players of colour by the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 60 percent of them must be black African.

Before then, quotas are being imposed on South African age group teams and among coaches and referees.

(There was no way a white man was going to be the new Springbok coach after Heyneke Meyer was forced out of the job after the World Cup last year. 

From this distance it seems that Mr Mbalula's decision is a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face - Peter Williams

Allister Cootzee becomes the second Coloured man after Pieter de Villiers to get the job.)

But the pace of transformation is not fast enough for Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula. Therefore, as punishment, he’s decided that the country cannot apply to be host of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Never mind the economic and social benefits that such an event would bring to South Africa the way it did in 1995. But the way things are progressing the Springboks won’t be a very strong team in seven years anyway.  

You'd have thought though that hosting the world’s premier rugby tournament again would be the best possible way to promote the game throughout the whole country.

From this distance it seems that Mr Mbalula's decision, and his edicts about cricket, netball and athletics, is a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

The social and political history of South Africa is deeply, deeply complex and New Zealanders shouldn’t offer any opinions on the best way forward for sport in that country  - even though I just have!

All we can do is look at the present and realise that, for whatever reasons, Super Rugby in South Africa is at its lowest ebb in the 21 seasons of the tournament.

If South African teams keep losing, Super Rugby's public appeal will decline

How about this for a fun fact? Through ten rounds this season, New Zealand teams have a one hundred percent winning record in the republic.

Of eleven matches between New Zealand and South African sides, there have been just two South African wins. The Lions beat the Chiefs in Hamilton in Round 2 and the Sharks squeezed past the Highlanders in Round 9. 

This weekend the Blues face the Kings in Port Elizabeth and the Hurricanes are in Durban playing the Sharks. On what we've just seen you'd expect another couple of New Zealand wins.

The worry is that if South African teams keep losing, Super Rugby's public appeal – especially on television there – will decline, like crowd attendances have.

That will eventually lead to a drop in television revenue for the tournament and the obvious impact that will have on New Zealand rugby.

It's all very well for us to be crowing about New Zealand success over there for now. Long term it will not be great for the game in this country.

It was wonderful so many fans turned out at Rugby Park

I love Southland and I love Rugby Park, Invercargill. I lived there as a kid and used to spend Saturday afternoons as a 10-year-old watching Blues play Old Boys or Pirates against Star.

So it was great to see Super Rugby back there on Saturday night.

With Dunedin's cosy indoor stadium, big game opportunities will be few and far between in the south from now on, but it was just wonderful that so many fans turned out to watch the Highlanders beat the Brumbies.

And wasn't it great that people can still stand on the terraces the way they always have at the ground, and that at the end the fans could rush onto the park and wish the players well as they walked off.

It was the way things used to be. It may not be practical everywhere, but it should be encouraged.

You couldn't do it at Ellis Park though. Somebody would break their leg.  


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