OPINION: Super Rugby a mortally wounded animal after Covid-19 blow.
SUPER RUGBY this year celebrates its 25th anniversary but the milestone could also double as the competition’s funeral.
The once great southern hemisphere competition has been ailing for some years now - the heady days of the initial Super 12 that kicked off in 1996 are a distant memory - and the Covid-19 crisis has struck another blow to what now looks like a mortally wounded animal.
During the global shutdown that struck Super Rugby after its seventh round, Argentina disbanded the Jaguares and encouraged its players to seek employment in Europe; and Japan’s Sunwolves were forever dissolved.
New Zealand - after handling Covid impeccably - looked inward and launched their Aotearoa Cup for its Super Rugby teams, and four rounds of exhilarating rugby later, the packed stadiums have made a statement of what the Kiwi public wants.
Australia, also relatively less affected by the pandemic, this weekend play their second round of their Super Rugby AU, while crisis-struck South Africa has yet to see its players return to training, never mind lace their boots up in anger.
What is happening Down Under is that New Zealand and Australia are appreciating that there is an alternative life to Super Rugby, with its long-haul travel to South Africa and Argentina and dwindling crowds for matches that are not local derbies - last year crowd attendances fell in New Zealand by six percent, and that is from a crowd base that has been annually eroded for well over a decade.
They say that where there is smoke there is fire and over the last seven days smoke has been billowing out of Australia, New Zealand, Wales and indeed South Africa, all of it suggesting that Super Rugby’s funeral pyre has been lit.
Consider the following: New Zealand Rugby Chairman Brent Impey, commenting on the booming attendances and TV audiences, said: “Certainly from a New Zealand perspective, we know what the public want ... and we’ve known for a long time what the public want, they want the derbies.”
Impey went on to say that while the Aotearoa Cup has been an instant success, it was not sustainable with just five teams, and that watering down the performance of the teams by adding further New Zealand teams would undermine the solid platform that has made the All Blacks nigh on invincible over the last 25 years. Kiwi teams have won 17 of the 24 Super Rugby titles which has translated into success on the international stage.
So more teams are required, and that is where New Zealand’s Antipodean cousins come in ... Impey says that New Zealand is open to a partnership with Australia in a competition that maintains the derbies of the Aotearoa Cup without watering down the Crusaders, Chiefs, Highlanders, Blues or Hurricanes.
“We’ve got a completely open mind as we plan through and, yes, we’re open to working with Rugby Australia,” Impey said.
— Super Rugby (@SuperRugbyNZ)
And in return, new Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan has told the Australian media that a trans-Tasman competition would be ideal to attract broadcasters (the struggling RA currently does not have a broadcasting deal in place for 2021).
So where would this leave South Africa? It would leave the Stormers, Sharks, Lions and Bulls open to join the Pro 14 in the UK and Ireland, according to an Afrikaans Sunday paper that is reliably known to be a mouthpiece for SA Rugby Director Rassie Erasmus. It would become an expanded Pro 16, with the two current SA teams in the Pro 14, the Cheetahs and the Kings, ironically dropping out.
A move to the northern hemisphere would make travelling easier for South African teams - the time zones are similar and the travel time is far less than the long haul to the Antipodes and, probably most significantly, SA would benefit financially from greater sponsorship and a far bigger television audience in Europe. More money would mean more players staying in South Africa. Money talks, we know this.
Welsh media outlet Wales Online said that the introduction of the SA teams would be a welcome boost. The website said: “South African rugby has gone box office since the Springboks powered their way to a third Rugby World Cup win in Japan. Superstars like Siya Kolisi and World Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit would light up the competition.”
Sanzaar boss Andy Marinos has responded to the growing clamour for Super Rugby to be laid to rest by claiming that the Rugby Championship, at least, can still be saved and staged in Australia late this year.
Perhaps ... But I fear that in terms of Sanzaar and its competitions, Marinos is whistling in the wind because the dismantling of tired Super Rugby is going to leave only satisfied customers.