12 Mar 2009

O'Neill thinks out loud about South African options

5:45 am on 12 March 2009

The Australian Rugby boss John O'Neill has urged South Africa to cut one of their struggling high veldt outfits to open the Super Rugby door to a black team from the Eastern Cape.

South African officials have taken umbrage at Australian suggestions a 15th team deserves to come from Down Under, believing the Eastern Cape's 'Southern Kings' should play in the expanded tournament from 2011.

Governing body SANZAR last week decided to expand the competition with the main plan to see three five-team conferences set up in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

With the new team expected to be included in the Australian conference, O'Neill doesn't see the sense in admitting the Kings, as politically important as it would be to the game in the Republic - unless South Africa replaced one of the three franchises in close proximity on the veldt - the Cheetahs, Lions or Bulls.

ONeill's suggestion would have the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs most in the firing line as they are the only winless side in the 2009 Super 14 competition and are yet to win a game on the road in Australasia since being admitted in 2006.

The Cheetahs also gained their chance in the competition when the South African Rugby Union controversially overlooked the Eastern Cape in their favour four years ago.

The Cheetahs and Lions did play together as the Cats up until 2005 but it was a marriage of inconvenience for both as the side struggled to get off the bottom of the ladder.

SARU officials have argued they deserve to have another team as they boast the biggest television market in the competition and are opposed to the expanded competition cutting into their own national Currie Cup.

But O'Neill said it was Super rugby and the Tri-Nations which ensured a lucrative broadcast agreement for SANZAR, not the third-tier competitions, saying that Australia doesn't have a Currie Cup or an NPC but the driving force of our success for 13 or 14 years has been Super Rugby or Tri-Nations and they can't forget that.

O'Neill hopeful the new franchise - to be decided by SANZAR this year - would be an Australian-based outfit which could provide a pathway back home for expatriate Australian players and also include a heavy Pacific Islander influence.