The Webb Ellis Cup is displayed at a promotional event for the 2019 Rugby World Cup at Shibuya district in Toky. The trophy will be displayed in several cities in Japan to celebrate two years to go until the Rugby World Cup start in Japan from Sept. 20 to Nov. 2. Photo: Eugene Hoshiko/AP Photo

Everywhere you look there are watersheds and schisms, changes and realignment.

Rugby has endured a couple of adjustments since the advent of professionalism in the mid-1990s, but it’s difficult to think of a moment when the game was more in a state of flux.

From the top down, cracks are appearing in the grand edifice. One of the biggest came from the unlikeliest source in England this week, with a bunch of academics calling for a ban on tackling and scrums. It’s all they’re talking about in the UK this week, the best summation coming via Wales prop Adam Jones’s pithy tweet: “Is it April 1st?”

World Rugby sharply rejected the “alarmist” call, but it’s another bump in the road for a game trying hard to settle down.

The blazers have other matters to attend to, with one senior official expressing misgivings about Japan’s readiness for the 2019 World Cup. Given Japan’s first world status, the bricks-and-mortar stuff ought to be fine, but the broad indifference - just eight percent of locals recently surveyed indicated a desire to watch matches at a stadium - is a worry.

Meanwhile, the Six Nations, often billed as the greatest tournament in the world, sits without a title sponsor, a staggering situation given its history and tradition.

Closer to home, our own game is evolving with the Cheetahs and Kings now part of the Pro14 tournament. It’s been a frantic few weeks for them, with the rest of us looking on to see if this grand experiment has legs. The Cheetahs did their ambitions no harm by belting Leinster last weekend. It’s just as well; SA teams must justify their place.

You suspect the invitation will soon also go out to the US and Canada, who have long had an eye on European rugby. It’s a virtuous state of affairs - the UK wouldn’t half mind cracking the potentially fertile North American market. But they must tread warily: just 6 271 fans pitched up for the recent Premiership showdown between Saracens and Newcastle in Philadelphia.

It may be sooner rather than later that SA teams soon align with the Premiership too. There have already been exploratory talks. Nothing is off the table, it seems, especially with SA having designs on forming two new franchises.

One of the victims of the shift north is our beloved Currie Cup. It was always the most resilient tournament, but its standing has been chipped away over the years. It no longer seems part of the SA rugby consciousness, which is a crying shame given how it has been the bedrock of the domestic game for so long. It must be salvaged.

The power of European rugby is no more evident than in the announcement this week that the British and Irish Lions would reduce the length of their tour to SA in 2023, ostensibly because some SA midweek teams don’t measure up. What drivel. It’s because club owners are resisting long tours for their own selfish reasons.

That’s tradition for you - kicked to the kerb.

Super Rugby is also fast changing with the recent ditching of three teams. Consequently, an entirely new tournament may be birthed given that the Western Force are on the outer. Billionaire mining magnate Andrew Forrest has threatened to form a new Asian competition if the Perth team is unsuccessful in its court bid to overturn the ARU’s decision.

Anyone who makes a plan to include the Pacific island teams (Tonga, Samoa and Fiji) may not make cash, but if they could bank goodwill, they’d be richer than Croesus.

Even the one-horse Rugby Championship is looking iffy. The Springboks are in troubled times, the 57-0 belting against the All Blacks having reverberated through the international game, which cannot have one of its superpowers crumble.

Argentina have lost the plot on the back of Super Rugby, having abandoned their traditional game for an all-or-nothing offloading frenzy. Not forgetting the Wallabies, who just aren’t drawing crowds.

These are challenging times. Leadership, vision and backbone are required to negotiate the choppy waters. The future of the game is at stake.


Sunday Tribune

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