Rugby: Boks the losers in Sanzar split

By Gregor Paul

Let South Africa's rugby administrators make their threats about breaking away from New Zealand and Australia, writes Gregor Paul. If they actually went through with it, they would only find the grass is not greener after all.

Kieran Read led the charge. Photo / Getty Images
Kieran Read led the charge. Photo / Getty Images

It is odd that the South Africans are again threatening to break from Sanzar on the weekend 94,000 people crammed into Soccer City to watch the All Blacks play the Springboks.

Whatever threats they might make; however much they feel marginalised or victimised by their Australasian partners; South African rugby cannot afford to cut ties with the All Blacks.

The All Blacks are South Africa's golden ticket - the fuel that drives much of their passion.

The popularity of the Currie Cup is such that the South Africans could happily walk away from Super 15. They have never been fully sold on a competition that hands them a raw travel deal. Even now that the Bulls are the premier side, if their association with Super Rugby ended today, few tears would be shed.

But giving up regular, meaningful contact with the All Blacks would burn them. These are the tests that ignite the public mood in South Africa. The Boks versus All Blacks is the only rivalry that counts in the Republic.

No one else cuts it - beating the English is fun, it means something, but the depth of history is not there and nor is the respect.

It's much the same with the Australians - a classic Johnny Come Lately without the same aura, prestige and guarantee of quality. The All Blacks are the only side that the South Africans measure themselves against. Stadiums sell in an instant when the All Blacks come to town.

The impression the South Africans give is that if they have the Currie Cup and Tri Nations, their world is complete. It's a narrow vision but one that would suit them perfectly.

Such a scenario was on the cards for some time in 2009 when the Sanzar alliance was on the brink of splitting. South Africa, without consultation, sold Currie Cup and in-bound tour broadcasting rights.

That created multiple issues for building a viable Super 15 format and, for several months, Australia and New Zealand worked on an alternative trans-tasman provincial competition.

The future at that stage was exactly the one South Africa craved - free to do their own thing until the Tri Nations. That may well be the future they want from 2015, when the broadcast deal that starts next year expires.

With almost 50 million people, fanatical support, strong corporate backing and an improving infrastructure, South African rugby adminis-trators have it in their heads that they hold all the cards.

Talk of breaking away is not new. It has happened periodically throughout the 15-year Sanzar alliance and yet here they all are - the three partners together, for better or for worse.

That's because the South African position is a bluff. They are arguably in the weakest position of the three. Lose the All Blacks and they lose everything.

That's a view shared by the South African players, if not their administrators.

"During the renewal of the Sanzar broadcast deal, various alternatives were investigated and the reality is that there are not viable options that can provide the players and public with exciting world-class rugby," says Piet Heymans, head of the South African Players Association.

"Should the Sanzar partner-ship be dissolved, it could have serious implications, not just for South African rugby but world rugby as a whole."

New Zealand, on the other hand, need the Springboks less. A few days before the clash with Australia in Melbourne, Richie McCaw was asked which meant more to the All Blacks - winning the Tri Nations or Bledisloe Cup?

"I think the Bledisloe probably edges ahead but, if you get the Bledisloe, there's a fair chance you have the other one as well," he said.

"The Bledisloe is really important... when you come to play the Wallabies, that's the one you want to look after the most."

For the current generation, any New Zealander born after 1970 really, the historic rivalry with the Boks is anathema. Those classic encounters, those nerve-strewn nights huddled round the radio for commentaries, belong to a different age.

As Conrad Smith said last month, he and his team-mates grew up in South Africa's isolation years and had no appreciation of the Springboks. It was always the Wallabies they saw as the All Blacks' arch rival. That remains the case.

Before the Tri Nations, New Zealand sustained a meaningful test programme without South Africa. As did Australia. Those two could survive happily with just each other and epic battles for the Bledisloe.

If South Africa quit Sanzar, what would they have? The Six Nations don't want them and there is no one else.

So let their administration talk of moving on; let them make their threats.

For all their posturing, they must surely realise that no other opponent could have been taken to Soccer City in Soweto and sold it out.

They must surely realise that the fervour, the hype, the tension, the pressure on the Springbok coaching staff and the expectation to succeed is that bit more intense because it is the All Blacks lining up against them.

If they don't - let them find out the hard way. Let the South Africans seek new partners and new markets and let them discover just how empty those new frontiers are in comparison with what they currently have.

* * *

The French were always convinced there was a Home Unions conspiracy against them back in the days of the Five Nations.

The Home Unions, according to the French, always got a better deal from the referees - most of whom spoke English.

Clearly, the South Africans are forming a similar view about the All Blacks. Unlike the French, however, there is some sympathy for the South Africans. The French had a classical Gallic interpretation of events. They had front-rowers who would head-butt, punch and kick and be sent off and then they would froth with injustice when Celtic and English players were merely warned after they had killed the ball at a ruck. Different crimes, different punishments.

The South African sense of injustice has some foundation. In the first five tests of the Tri Nations, there were grounds for believing there to be one set of rules for the Boks and one for the All Blacks.

Danie Rossouw harmlessly flicked at Richie McCaw's ear in Wellington. When McCaw reacted, Rossouw tried to brush him off and was yellow carded.

It was innocuous stuff but referee Alain Rolland wanted to make a statement early. Yet when Rene Ranger was accused of a dangerous tackle later in the half, there was no card or citing. Jaque Fourie and Jean de Villiers copped two week bans for tackles that were no worse.

It was also fortuitous that inexplicably Rolland couldn't see the number on Sam Whitelock's back when he tipped up a Bok forward and dumped him on his head.

Bakkies Botha took a yellow for killing the ball near his goal-line at Eden Park. McCaw took three warnings for killing the ball three times near his goal-line a week later.

Most perplexing was the non-sanction of Tony Wood-cock for driving into the back of Wallaby hooker Saia Faingaa in Christchurch. It was a nasty, off-the-ball hit that the Boks just knew had it been committed by Botha or Rossouw, would have been a yellow card and a ban.

Their simmering discontent with this inequality boiled into public rage when coach Peter de Villiers was summoned to a disciplinary hearing for suggesting, obliquely, that there was a desire among officialdom to see the All Blacks win in New Zealand to boost the popularity of the World Cup.

The summons, according to SARU president Oregan Hoskins, was a "declaration of war". The Tasman brothers were in cahoots to South African eyes and a few days later, despite de Villiers being exonerated, reports emerged about a possible South African breakaway from Sanzar.

It's easy to see why they feel the world is against them; why the alliance is not all it should be - but there is no conspiracy. While history is always written by the victors, sport, too, favours the winners.

Winning teams have always had an easier ride from referees. When a team like the All Blacks are playing well and positively, referees are more lenient. Maybe it's not fair but that's how it is and there is truth to the saying teams make their own luck.

Last year, when the Boks were winning, when the game was set up perfectly for them, there was no talk of a Tasman conspiracy, or of a breakaway once agreement had been reached on the future of Super 15.

In the Tri Nations last year, they picked up two yellow cards, same as the All Blacks and half the four shown to the Wallabies - the team that lost five of their six games.

Last year, they were winning and Sanzar could last forever. Now they are under pressure and are threatening a walkout.

What happens next year if the Boks start winning again, if the All Blacks start being hammered by referees?

It's not that there is one set of rules for the All Blacks and another for everyone else. There is simply more leeway, more patience shown to the team dominating and it just so happens that this year, that is the All Blacks.

Five classic Springboks vs All Blacks Tri Nations tests

1: New Zealand 32, South Africa
12 July 10, 2010, Eden Park

This was intense, brutal and fast. The All Blacks' accuracy was outstanding. The ball was in play for almost 40 minutes, there was a bit of off the ball stuff and high quality tries.

2: New Zealand 28, South Africa 30
July 12, 2008, Carisbrook

There was tension and intrigue throughout this game and then a stunning ending when Ricky Januarie scored a superb solo try with five minutes remaining to clinch it. It was arguably the result rather than the performance that was significant, as this was the first game the Springboks won on New Zealand soil for 10 years.

3: South Africa 16, New Zealand 52
July 19, 2003, Loftus Versfeld

This remains the All Blacks' record victory against the Boks and one of only two occasions where they have cracked 50 points. It was one of those glorious days for the All Blacks when everything they tried worked and with a hard track and dry ball, Carlos Spencer was in his element.

4: South Africa 24, New Zealand 23
August 15, 1998, Kings Park

This was the game that sent New Zealand into a dark place - it was the fourth consecutive loss that season. It was also a game New Zealand threw away. Having raced out to an early lead, they were ahead 23-5 with 12 minutes to go. A remarkable Bok comeback was completed when James Dalton dotted down in injury time.

5: South Africa 26, New Zealand 33
August 24, 1996, Loftus

This was the third test in a four game series and gave the All Blacks their first series win in the Republic. There were amazing scenes after the final whistle, with many of the team in tears. It was also a fierce, dynamic encounter that held both nations gripped.

- Herald on Sunday

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