When you sit on the fence, sometimes you get a sore bum
It’s all very well for SA to juggle the demands of Super Rugby and Pro14 in Europe, but ...
The future of Super Rugby seems perennially under the microscope, but this time its custodians have us believe they are armed with a telescope too.
Blue sky thinking in the dark, cynics might suggest, but either way Sanzaar, the organising body for major rugby in the southern hemisphere, have to deal with rumours that South Africa is likely to reduce its current footprint of four entrants.
Sanzaar were quick to rubbish the rumours as claptrap. They made it clear they are reviewing the competition’s sustainability as far as 2030, but that no decision or clear direction has been identified regarding expansion or further contraction of the competition.
In the last few seasons the competition has been in a state of flux with its participating membership ballooning to 18 in 2016 before being trimmed back amid much gnashing of teeth to 15 this year.Despite their denials, where there’s smoke a spark likely preceded, and South Africa’s developing bromance with European rugby officials has been interpreted as a sure sign that more local franchises are to follow the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings into the Pro14 competition. In fact Griquas and the Pumas have already been given franchise status with their path to Europe also clearly mapped. Will heavyweights like the Lions, the Bulls, the Stormers and the Sharks follow?
Having one foot in Europe and the other this side of the equator has given SA Rugby options, and indeed leverage, they did not have before.
Being geographically neutral is hugely advantageous. On one hand they share seasonal similarities with their southern hemisphere partners, while occupying the same timezone has helped them find favour with broadcasters in the north.
“We have no plans to walk away from Sanzaar. We want to keep this unique position,” said SA Rugby president Mark Alexander on Thursday.
It makes sense for SA Rugby to play both sides of the fence. Playing in the Pro14 gives South Africa a larger footprint on a global scale and it affords its players the opportunity to showcase their talent on a better lit stage. Already teams who they come up against are luring them north.
There are spinoffs for the country, too, as witnessed with the foreign currencies that travelling supporters of Munster and Ulster pumped into the local economy.How all this will affect Super Rugby remains to be seen but already Sanzaar tacitly accepts “less is more”.
Super Rugby once prided itself for the unremitting competitive spirit in which it was played. It was what set it apart. Like no other competition, it prepared the elite players of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand for the rigours of Test rugby.
If they were to put the integrity of the competition before their own narrow interest, then Sanzaar should return to a 12-team format.
Winning it will imbue the winner with the sense that they are best of the best. How rugby bosses decide who gets the chop is a prickly matter, especially when you consider the Jaguares and the Sunwolves’ participation is just about sacrosanct. The Jaguares are developing into a force, while the involvement of the Sunwolves is a developmental imperative with Japan staging next year’s Rugby World Cup.
“People are just speculating,” said Alexander about the rumours. “We are an equity partner in Super Rugby. It has just been good for South African rugby. We have an expanding footprint in the north but we are happy with Sanzaar. No other international federation plays in two international competitions (either side of the equator). We are in a unique position.”
For the moment, it seems, we have to be satisfied with pie in the sky.