Super Rugby gained zero by chucking out the Sunwolves
Team created the suspicion that the game’s power brokers could act outside their own narrow interest
So the sun will set on Super Rugby’s incongruent beasts from the east, the Sunwolves. News of their demise last week, although in a part due to their home union’s inability to stump up the cash to keep them in the competition, was received as an icy slap across the face of rugby in Asia.
News of their exit arrived at a time when rugby, and its deeply entrenched elite, look set the spurn the opportunity to set the game upon a path that could make it a truly global sport. That’s just the way rugby is.
The Sunwolves, who operate under the Japanese flag, never really stood a chance. They were introduced as part of an unwieldy 18-team conference-based competition that made as much sense as Einstein’s hair.
As much as their introduction was aimed at creating a buzz before this year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan, they were also supposed to give the competition a larger footprint in the Asia-Pacific region, through their dual home ground status in Singapore. To be fair, having two home grounds meant the Sunwolves never had a proper footing.
For that they have SA Rugby to thank. A condition under which they were issued a licence was that they also have a base in Singapore which was far more accessible for SA teams than Tokyo, which would have required connecting flights.
While their culling means the tournament can be restored to something vaguely resembling a strength-versus-strength format, the Sunwolves’ departure leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
After his team won in Singapore last Saturday, stand-in Lions captain Malcolm Marx lamented their axing. If nothing else, the Sunwolves drew their opponents out of their comfort zone. They took the competition places.
Visitors to the Prince Chichibu Stadium in Tokyo could expect regular crowds upwards of 15,000 which rivals if not beats average attendances in Australia, and perhaps even New Zealand.
In their Singapore base, visiting teams had the unique opportunity to potentially play under a retractable roof.
Running out against the Sunwolves tested travelling teams in different ways. Playing in the weight-shedding humidity of Singapore brings a challenge far greater than the moderately set saunas of Brisbane or even Durban. Although they didn’t have the firepower or sheer muscle to be an enduring force in Super Rugby, the Sunwolves brought attitude, guile, inventiveness and a helter skelter brand that shook things up.
They prided themselves on hunting as a pack, unashamedly drawing on the strength of their collective.
Apart from adding richly to the tapestry of Super Rugby, the Sunwolves gave the competition greater reach and helped create the suspicion, albeit only momentarily, that the game’s power brokers could act outside their own narrow interest.
If Sanzaar appeared a little cold-hearted in the Sunwolves’ axing, then consider the ice in the veins of the so called Home Unions (England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland) who are likely to scupper attempts to make the rugby world a better place.
Plans for the Nations Championship, which would have brought rugby’s elite within reach of the minnows through a multi-tiered system which has promotion-relegation as one of its central tenets, are likely to be stillborn.
Some Home Unions, as well as France and Italy, fear promotion-relegation. Ultimately, though, there is also the small matter of passing up on R2.2bn each should they turn their backs on the lure of fresh investment in the Six Nations.
Should they agree to new investors they would be locked into a long-term agreement, which pretty much means the Nations Championships, with its transparent revolving door structure, will fall flat.
The Six Nations teams are unlikely to give the thumbs up to the Nations Championship, which carries the promise of a more equitable system in which riches (albeit a much smaller slice) are shared, and where the playing field is less sloped against the minnows. Why try and make rugby a truly global sport if you can preserve a system in which the Rugby World Cup is frozen in time as a battle between the All Blacks and maybe five other teams?
The chasm between the game’s haves and have-nots will endure – but for a few fleeting moments the Sunwolves gave all the little guys hope.