Sunwolves and Jaguares on Super Rugby ‘Knifes Edge’

Super Rugby Rd 7 - Sharks v Jaguares
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With the decision made, the structure of the 2018 Super Rugby competition is going to be reduced from 18 to 15 sides. And with three teams to be cut from the format, up til now the Sunwolves and Jaguares will have been on the ‘knifes edge’.

This restructuring by SANZAAR changes the conference system, where the changes are felt most by two South African and one Australian team. The Sunwolves will move into that Australian conference, and the two African conferences are combined; including the Jaguares.

And with the three teams still to be identified, the stakeholders from the Argentine and Japanese rugby unions might feel torn–satisfied that their respective teams are staying, yet empathetic for the predicament that their SANZAAR partners must be in.

Sunwolves and Jaguares on Super Rugby ‘Knifes Edge’

In the first year of the expanded competition, the final placings might not have been the only measure used as evidence for the judgement made. Finishing in last place were the Southern Kings (9 points) with the Sunwolves earning that same number. That value is not the only metric of course. Wins and losses only made up a portion of the reasons why fan engagement has waned from earlier variants of Super Rugby. Viewer numbers have dipped.

In Australia, the coverage on pay TV has been overtaken by other sports; NRL Rugby League and AFL Football. The popularity has plummeted, along with the winning habit. The trend has occurred in South Africa, so something had to happen. Adding three teams in 2016, it also transformed the fixtures, travel schedule and reach of the competition–but it did not gel. It felt confusing, unfamiliar, and ultimately, unpopular.

Why Change, and Who is the Biggest Loser?

The demand for change came from within. An expectation from SANZAAR that growth would somehow be translated into popularity. The only realization was that with little comparative models, it was new ground. Unbroken territory that crossed the globe–literally. Big changes, and by the time that the four conference system finals arrived, more changes were delivered.

The finals format saw each conference awarded a home semi final. That was compounded when the only qualifying Australian side accumulated less points than the fourth ranked New Zealand side. It damaged the credibility of the format, something that Super Rugby could not ‘promote’ their way out of.

So the changes made did not fairly represent the standings of the teams, but it did represent the parties. For that, SANZAAR can be proud that it has grown the game in Port Elizabeth, Buenos Aires and Tokyo. The benefits will be felt across World Rugby, and that is a fact which will survive into 2018, and beyond.

Super Rugby Rd 9 - Sunwolves v Jaguares
Harumichi Tatekawa #12 of Sunwolves scores his team’s winning try during during the round nine Super Rugby (Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)

But from 2018, three franchises will no longer be eligible to play at this level. and it will certainly be felt hardest by those regions affected but will also affect the whole competition.

Empathy Felt for Impending Loss of Teams

As media releases and press conferences are given, they communicate an administrative decision. Meetings held in London, and more recently the negotiations between the parties are case specific. But they do not reflect the casualties–the players, management and organisations. It will impact them directly, so empathy has been felt widely.

One of the first to openly share this was Chris Boyd. Having coached in South Africa, the current Champions head coach has a direct interest–former colleagues, players and African fans he is familiar with. Boyd told NZME “I’m not paid to have thoughts on Sanzaar, but I do feel some sympathy for the management and clubs and players in South Africa and Australia.

“They’ll be worried about whether they will have a job next year.”

Boyd will be portraying a sentiment held by all other coaches across Super Rugby. And even while the three teams are yet to be named, it may come as a shock still to those involved.

In Tokyo and Buenos Aires, the fact that the Sunwolves and Jaguares are deemed safe may not hold solace; when considering Australian or South African fans. From the stakeholder viewpoint, the Japanese and Argentine teams are ‘lucky’. This is because they [fans] will believe that performance is the true judgement.

Decisions Made on More Than Performance Alone

Results count; in saying that, last weekends win by the ‘Wolves over the Bulls was timely. That huge upset was good evidence of the future role that the Japanese side has in Super Rugby.

If you are a South African fan, the thought of sacrificing two teams must seem incredulous. One of the proudest rugby nations, the six sides represent all regions of the ‘Rainbow Nation’. How difficult a decision it will be, is something that was examined by Ryan Jordan–LWOR Department Head, based in South Africa.

The arguments will too exist in Australia, where the ARU has announced that the team are to be named very soon. And with the ACT Brumbies nominated as a safe franchise, it only leaves the Melbourne Rebels or the Western Force as candidates.

A very difficult decision must be made–even while the ARU proposed a Trans-Tasman competition as an alternative [which New Zealand dismissed quite rightly]. Those alternatives would have deflected from the issues that there are too many lopsided games, where Australia have won only three matches in over 30 games against NZ competition.

Sunwolves and Jaguares Safe…for Now

“Part of our strategic review was how we wanted to position the competition going forward. We believe, if the high performance issues are addressed in Japan, there is a huge amount of potential in that market,” was how Andy Marinos communicated the decision reached on the Sunwolves.

This maybe for the short-term, as the 2019 Rugby World Cup approaches, rightly or wrongly the Japan Rugby factor is important. As the ‘Wolves begin their maiden trip to New Zealand, the pressure will be on to perform. An away win is critical, but unlikely. Performance is key, but not the only factor.

For the Jaguares, they are performing. They also some a heavyweight ‘batting for them’. Augustin Pichot is the Vice President of World Rugby, and the delegate for South American rugby. His influence helped to create the Jaguares initially and he would have assisted Unión Argentina de Rugby to maintain their position.

For both the Sunwolves and jaguars, they are secure within Super Rugby…for now. It is within the premise of the broadcasting agreement, which expires in 2020. So while pay TV in Australia may see a ‘degradation value’ of their product, the competition continues as normal for this year.

Focus Needs to Stay on Current Season

For Australia, and more importantly South Africa, focus must stay on this current season. Teams who may feel ‘the knives are being sharpened’ for them, must remain firmly fixed on the goal in front of them is important. The affected unions will be supportive, as the entire Australian fanbase will ultimately be. Rugby has a social factor, so the rugbyunited value will come to the fore.

And seeing the Sunwolves and Jaguares on the Super Rugby ‘Knifes Edge’ the whole system has been shaken. How quickly the competition can refocus is key. Admittedly upset to it’s foundations, the term change management is now the role that SANZAAR will play.

It might also be an indicator of the legacy that some of the decision makers will be seen by–some may even be sacrificed, just as the three Super Rugby franchise teams have been.

“Main photo credit”