JOHANNESBURG - The South African Rugby Union (SARU) has relegated the Johannesburg-based Lions from the Super Rugby competition to make way for new side the Southern Kings.
SARU officials voted 26-3 in Cape Town to promote the Eastern Cape-based Kings and relegate the Lions, who finished last in this year's tournament.
The Sharks, who finished runners-up this season to the Chiefs of New Zealand, semi-finalists the Stormers, three-time champions the Bulls and the improving Cheetahs retain their status as South Africa's other franchises in the 15-team competition.
"All rugby provinces have consistently supported the need for an Eastern Cape team in the competition.
"That decision was first taken in 2006 but their inclusion has twice been postponed," SARU president Oregan Hoskins said.
"The Kings franchise represents more clubs than any other region — apart from the Stormers — and contains numerous leading rugby schools. It has been starved of top-class competition for a decade-and-a-half.
"Provinces asked for a rugby solution and we believe this was the fairest and most transparent method to respond to what is undoubtedly a less than ideal situation."
The decision to axe the lowest South African team on the table followed months of speculation that included the Lions joining forces with another franchise and the Kings being paid to delay their elevation.
There has been ongoing political pressure to promote the Kings, who are likely to stage home fixtures at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in coastal city Port Elizabeth.
Eastern Cape boasts the largest number of black rugby players in the country and some officials from the ruling ANC party have expressed unhappiness at what they believed was the neglect of the sport in the region.
New Zealander Matt Sexton was named coach of the Kings last April but the Currie Cup second-tier leaders have not announced any major signings before the big step-up to Super Rugby.