South Africa’s Super Rugby break-up and the Pro16 idea

A Super Rugby break-up could be imminent, and with the South Africans looking north at a spot in the Guinness Pro14, is this really the right option for all involved? Last Word delves into the issues surrounding the move.

‘It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.’

So opined Niccolo Machiavelli in 1532 about the possible expansion of the Pro14 rugby competition to include a further two South African teams; a prediction particularly prophetic as it pre-dated the sport of Rugby Union or the concept of nation-states. Nevertheless, Machiavelli has been vindicated as, following an imminent Super Rugby break-up, the future of the Pro14 is also set to change – and some are not pleased.

Super Rugby breakup – a long time coming

Ever since the inclusion of the Cheetahs and the Kings in the Pro14 competition, there have been whispers that SA Rugby might seek to make a concerted move away from Super Rugby and commit more sides to the Pro14. From a South African perspective, there has always been something of a love-hate relationship with Super Rugby. On the one hand, the North-South dichotomy in rugby has meant that South Africa has always felt more culturally aligned (at least in a rugby sense) to the other SANZAAR nations and would deem Australia and New Zealand its ‘traditional rivals’. There is a long and fruitful rugby history between the three countries and this nostalgia runs deep.

On the other hand, Super Rugby has logistically always been a mess. The geographical quandary of playing a tournament over multiple time zones with more regular travel than any other competition (probably in all sport) has been a bugbear of South African fans since the inception of the tournament. Whereas Kiwi and Aussie sides toured for two weeks at a time, South African sides toured for four. Whereas a trip across the Tasman is a joy-ride, a trip across the Indian Ocean is an odyssey. TV scheduling, predictably, was also a nightmare with fans either having to stay up late or get up early in order to watch their touring teams play.

Super Rugby break-up
CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND – JULY 11: Mark Telea of the Blues charges forward during the round 5 Super Rugby Aotearoa match between the Crusaders and the Blues at Orangetheory Stadium on July 11, 2020 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

The expansion of the tournament did the competition no favours. The conference system was convoluted and seemed to ensure that at least one deserving team (nearly always from New Zealand) could not make the knockouts to accommodate a less deserving team (nearly always from Australia) – the antithesis of what fans want in a competition. The flaws were systemic and the disillusionment grew. Add into the mix some suspect officiating and uncompetitive teams and the Super Rugby cocktail becomes decidedly toxic.

The Aratipu Report

To say the winds of change are blowing in rugby would be an understatement; those winds are tempestuous and the footing never more unsure. With the onset of Covid-19, the rugby world has had to rethink where it stands. The rumour mill has never been so busy. Each week there are fresh reports of new competitions emerging, old ones being reformed and hopes for a globally aligned calendar are raised and dashed almost by the hour. Amongst this furor, this week New Zealand released its own findings into an investigation into the perceived failings of the Super Rugby competition.

The Aratipu report (as it has been named) cites among its recommendations the reconfiguration of the competition so it becomes a ‘Trans-Tasman’ tournament with the inclusion of a ‘Pacific Island’ side. Fans and ex-players in New Zealand and Australia have long been calling for this. The consequence, of course, is that South Africa would be left out in the cold. The question of how financially prudent it would be to exclude a country with a TV audience of millions of people in the current economic climate (bearing in mind also that the ARU already required a bailout from World Rugby and NZRU from the New Zealand government) is happily glossed over by proponents of Super Rugby Oceania.

However financially ill-conceived the idea is, the fact remains that there is a growing and realistic prospect of South Africa’s unceremonious expulsion from Super Rugby. It is this fear that will likely be spurring on the efforts of administrators to find a new home for South Africa’s best four sides (Sharks, Stormers, Bulls and Lions) in the Pro 14 (reportedly at the expense of the Cheetahs and the train-wreck Kings). As predicted by Machiavelli in 1532… this has been met with some resistance.

Super Rugby break-up
CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND – JULY 11: Richie Mo’unga of the Crusaders kicks a conversion during the round 5 Super Rugby Aotearoa match between the Crusaders and the Blues at Orangetheory Stadium on July 11, 2020 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Resistance to Pro16

Many fans of the current Pro14 competition have concerns. Often cited, recently and prominently by Keith Wood, is the argument that the inclusion of South African teams will ruin a competition that thrives on the traditional rivalries (that phrase again) of Celtic sides. This line of thought is myopic. Setting aside the fact that Italian sides are already part of the competition; are these proponents of a Celtic competition not the same fans who are happy to welcome a spate of South African players into their own sides? Wood does not want South Africans in a Celtic tournament unless, of course, those South Africans happen to be RG Snyman, Damian de Allende, Jean Kleyn, CJ Stander, Chris Cloete and Keynan Knox playing in the red of his beloved Munster. It’s an argument mired in hypocrisy.

 

There are also concerns that the addition of sides will dilute the quality of the competition. Stuart Barnes this week cautioned that Pro14 ought not to make the same mistakes as Super Rugby. Though a valid concern to raise, it is worth remembering that the aforementioned four teams rumoured to be included are a different kettle of fish to the Kings or Cheetahs. Before the suspension of the Super Rugby tournament the Sharks were top of the table (yes – even above the Kiwi sides) and had put 42 points past the Highlanders in Dunedin; the Lions have been Super Rugby finalists on three occasions in the last five years and the Bulls and Stormers are both having a renaissance of late. There is plenty of quality in South Africa and fans in Europe ought not be deterred by having watched the Kings over the past two seasons.

A sixteen team tournament would require some structural rejigging, and the likely result may be a model with four ‘pools’ of four sides. Whether this will be to the taste of fans remains to be seen but otherwise, logistically speaking, the expansion makes sense. There is also the matter of increased travel and player welfare implications. Though the distance between South Africa and Europe is significant there is a negligible time difference and so jet lag is not a factor – a key distinction from Super Rugby which is played over thirteen time zones. The only real concern will be that winter in Europe is high summer in South Africa and rugby is best not played in 30-degree heat. This problem may, however, be remedied through scheduling games in South Africa early and late in the regular season so as to avoid the worst of the heat or by having drinks breaks within games.

The conformity of time zones also makes TV scheduling considerably easier and maximizes the prospective viewership of any given game. The inclusion of more South African teams consequently has real potential to broaden tournament revenue; those millions of rugby-obsessed fans in South Africa will be watching their teams regardless of what tournament they play in. For traveling European fans, all that should be said is that South Africa is an outstanding touring location (particularly the coastal cities of Cape Town and Durban) and what better way to escape the winter blues than a few weeks in the sunshine watching rugby!

DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA – MARCH 14: Salmaan Moerat of the DHL Stormers during the Super Rugby match between Cell C Sharks and DHL Stormers at Jonsson Kings Park on March 14, 2020 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

A risk worth taking

The expansion of the Pro14 offers a tantalizing opportunity for the development of new North-South rivalries, new stories to be written; tales to be told over a Guinness in Limerick or a Castle in Jozi. Just because these rivalries do not yet exist does not mean that they cannot in the future; particularly if the new South African teams start posing a regular challenge to the tournament heavyweights.

As rugby plots its return after its Covid-enforced sabbatical, organizers and fans should embrace the potential of a Pro16 competition. An element of circumspection is logical in the current climate; the temptation to circle the wagons and ‘stick to what you know’ understandably exists. Rugby, however, simply cannot afford to be insular. Though there are of course risks, in the words of rugby-aficionado and part-time oracle Machiavelli: ‘never was anything great achieved without danger’.

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