Sunwolves likely to survive as axe falls on Super Rugby

Sunwolves' Timothy Lafaele (left) charging forward during the Super Rugby match against Southern Kings on March 4, 2017.
Sunwolves' Timothy Lafaele (left) charging forward during the Super Rugby match against Southern Kings on March 4, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

MELBOURNE • The Sunwolves endured a tough debut season in Super Rugby last year - winning just one match - but they will live to fight another day as they are less likely to be one of the teams dropped for next season.

Harold Verster, chief executive of the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs, told South African media that Super Rugby will be cut from 18 teams to 16 for the new campaign, following a meeting of governing body Sanzaar in London last week.

Sanzaar, which is made up of the South African, New Zealand, Australian and Argentinian rugby unions, met last Friday to address widespread criticism of the unwieldy 18-team format, which was introduced last year.

Online news portal Netwerk24 cited Verster as saying one of South Africa's six teams and one of Australia's five would now be cut from the competition for 2018.

"There was even speculation that we would return to a Super 12, but my information is that it is going to be reduced from the current 18 to 16 teams, which means the Cheetahs are safe," Verster said.

"There is much discussion about the current series and the format and that two South African teams and one Australian team would drop out. All I can say is that we are safe. I keep my ear to the ground."

Last month, the outspoken former Australian Rugby Union (ARU) chairman John O'Neill implied that the Sunwolves, who are co-based in Tokyo and Singapore, do not merit a place in the league due to their poor performances.

The sole win last season for the Japanese franchise came when they beat fellow debutants Jaguares of Argentina 36-28.

In Australia, the Perth-based Western Force and the Melbourne Rebels are seen as the most vulnerable teams in any cull.

The struggling Western Force have been under the ARU's management since falling into financial strife last year.

Like the Force, the Rebels have never made the play-offs but being privately owned, are less of a financial drain on ARU coffers.

The chief executives of Australia's five teams were briefed in a conference call with the ARU yesterday.

The ARU declined to comment, saying it would wait until a final outcome was decided and announced by Sanzaar.

The Eastern Cape-based Southern Kings, who re-joined the competition last year, are regarded as the most vulnerable of South Africa's six teams.

The Kings finished only above the Sunwolves in the competition last season and had to be bailed out by South Africa Rugby after a financial crisis.

Sanzaar on Saturday said it would issue a statement on the future of the competition after stakeholders hold "final" talks this week.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2017, with the headline 'Sunwolves likely to survive as axe falls on Super Rugby'. Print Edition | Subscribe