It was South Africa who pushed them into it; New Zealand who came up with a solution and Australia who are holding things up. What an unholy mess Super Rugby is. Respite, if that’s what it will be, is due this week with the Western Force, Kings and Cheetahs to be cut as the competition returns to its 2015 format.
South Africa had wanted a sixth team for a long time. Political pressures had pushed for the side to be based in Port Elizabeth where the majority of the rugby faithful are black. When Sanzaar finally succumbed, Argentina were quick to pounce. Having had the Pumas in the Rugby Championship since 2012, Argentina said inclusion in the Super competition had to happen if the Pumas were to improve. The problem is, 17 is an awkward number when it comes to sports draws, so New Zealand proposed pushing on to an 18-team competition with the inclusion of a team from Japan. It was, says someone who sat around a table, a last-ditch attempt to find a solution that might work.
It didn’t. And now the work to unpick the problem is being held up by the Australians – whose broadcasters are worried about a decline in content, and the Australian Rugby Union, who are concerned about laying off 20 percent of their work force. The contraction has to happen, though, because the ARU is broke and by dismantling the Force they’ll saved about $8 million a year. It has to happen in South Africa, too, as they, like Australia, are in dire straits financially. They have just posted a $2 million loss and, with the rand in the toilet, need to stop bleeding money.
New Zealand are okay financially thanks to the foresight of then chief executive David Rutherford and a board that included business heavyweights Craig Norgate and Chris Liddell, who hedged their foreign income in 2001.
NZR now has healthy reserves. Australia and South Africa don’t.
Some in Australia wonder why they have to lose a team when it is Argentina’s Jaguares, Japan’s Sunwolves and the Kings who are the newcomers. Last in, first out, is their rallying cry. Fair point but, again, South Africa and Australia are broke. So the money talks. And when it comes to the Sunwolves, as one rugby administrator said to me – “if we aren’t in Asia we aren’t thinking strategically about the future”.
There have also been calls from across the ditch for a trans-Tasman competition, while some in South Africa are again suggesting they leave Sanzaar to play in the north. Neither will happen.
The New Zealand union sees little value in what would effectively be an overgrown domestic competition that involves Australian teams. The All Blacks coaches like having players coming through the ranks who have played South Africans in South Africa; who are used to the travel and different conditions; and who understand what it takes to win abroad. And though South Africa has threatened to head north before, where would they go? There is no room for them in the Aviva Premiership, and would they turn their backs on playing the All Blacks to compete in the Six Nations? Hardly.
It was decided in London last month that Super Rugby would return to 15 teams. The delay in announcing this, which has frustrated some of those involved, is because the broadcasters and national unions have to agree to the changes. New Zealand and Argentina have ticked their boxes. South Africa pretty much too. Australia is the stumbling block. If they don’t concede then all bets are off because Sanzaar requires all parties to agree to any proposed changes.
When they get over it (and perhaps get over themselves a little bit), we will see a return to the format used from 2011-2015 with three conferences. It will see a full round of New Zealand derbies – games that are hugely popular with fans, but not so much with coaches who see their players bashed to bits overs the eight brutal matches. The New Zealand teams will then play four of the five Australian teams (the Sunwolves moving into the Aussie conference) and four of the five South African teams (who have the Jaguares in their conference). The three conference winners and the five “next best” will then form a top eight.
It’s a reasonably logical solution, and it might just happen.