THE landscape of South African rugby is set to be revamped radically on Monday when South African rugby chiefs are expected to expand their Currie Cup Premier Division from six to eight teams so that they can include the EP Kings and the Pumas.
But there are other important issues lurking below the surface, transformation being chief among them, that could cause divisions in the often fractious South African rugby family.
It has been an open secret in rugby circles for some time that rugby bosses are already in agreement that the Kings and Pumas will be promoted and that Monday’s meeting will merely make the decision official.
However, away from the enlarged Currie Cup there are other issues that have put a spanner in the works and which caused an earlier meeting to be postponed without a decision being reached.
Evidently some of the smaller unions want to explore the possibility of all 14 unions playing in a Premier Division which is divided into two sections.
This is unlikely because it would erode the “strength versus strength” concept rugby bosses want in their top competition.
When the last South African Rugby Union (Saru) meeting was held on September 19, the Kings were still not certain of ending second on the First Division log and that might have caused rugby chiefs to delay a final decision until the top two positions had been finalised.
If the Kings had been promoted at that point, and had they failed to end in the top two, rugby bosses would have been left with egg on their faces and open to criticism.
However, after the Kings beat the Falcons last week, that issue was put to bed.
It is believed the Kings originally said they would forego a Super Rugby promotion match against the team finishing bottom of the South African conference next year in exchange for automatic elevation to the Premier Division.
Significantly, the Kings were also chasing a guaranteed two-year stay in the top flight and proved to be problematic among rival unions.
Another issue that has become a sticking point with some unions is Saru’s decision to enforce strict racial quotas for next season’s Vodacom Cup rugby competition.
All 14 provincial teams will be required to pick a minimum of seven black players in their match-day squads, two of whom must be forwards. A minimum of five black players will be required to start.
It is believed most of the the northern-based union were against the quota system being implemented, but they were out-voted by the southern unions.
Kings rugby boss Cheeky Watson has made it clear that his union was behind the quota decision.
When the move was originally announced, Watson said: “Eastern Province supports these moves wholeheartedly. It is good to see new parameters in place to ensure that transformation takes place. We have the talent here to ensure this transformation takes place.”
When the EP Kings played the Border Bulldogs at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium earlier this season they had 15 black players in their 22-man Currie Cup First Division squad.
There were 11 black players in the starting line-up.
The Vodacom Cup is regarded as a breeding ground for future stars and is played at the beginning of the season. The quota system was determined in line with Saru’s global transformation strategy.
“This decision to introduce measurable targets underlines Saru’s commitment to transformation,” Saru president Oregan Hoskins said.
“The Vodacom Cup is a critical step on the development pathway in professional rugby, but it has moved away from its primary purpose of presenting opportunities for young emerging players, particularly black players,” Hoskins said.
By opening the door to the top flight, South African rugby bosses will give talented young players like Siviwe Soyizwapi, Sergeal Petersen and Shane Gates an opportunity to express their talent on the highest stage.
If anyone doubts the talent in EP one needs to look no further than the exploits of the EP Kings under-21 team this season.
They are currently on top of the Currie Cup B Division and are unbeaten after six matches.
Though all the signs point to rugby bosses merely rubber-stamping the elevation of the Kings on Monday, there is always an element of doubt before a final decision is reached.
“It is vital to play in the Premier Division because our strength is going to come from our young players,” EP Kings skipper Darron Nell said.
“The players coming through need a top-level tournament to prepare for the Kings re-entry into Super Rugby in 2016.
“For guys not making it at another union, like Western Province for example, it is a great opportunity to come here and get exposure at top-level Currie Cup.”
Inclusion in the Currie Cup Premier Division would be a huge shot in the arm for rugby in the Kings region and would help to maintain the momentum that Super Rugby kick-started earlier this year.
More than 250 000 fans flocked to Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium to watch the Southern Kings play Super Rugby and big crowds will flock to the stadium to watch top-flight Currie Cup rugby.
The Currie Cup is South Africa’s premier domestic competition and is steeped in history and tradition.
It is the oldest provincial rugby competition in the world and is regarded as the cornerstone of South Africa’s rugby heritage.
While many feel the advent of so many derbies in Super Rugby has undermined the Currie Cup, the coveted gold trophy remains the most prestigious prize in South African domestic rugby.