Firstly, it is rumour, not confirmed reports that Guinness PRO Rugby will likely engage with the four South Africa teams recently ‘separated’ from Super Rugby.
Not that that will stop the prospective stories and scenarios being posted on social media and by rugby observers. Last Word on Rugby believes that the truth lies between, with the probability of the Sharks, Stormers, Bulls, and Lions needing a new competition. Their likely new home is in the Northern Hemisphere – and Guinness PRO Rugby is the greatest beneficiary of this thought.
Yet, how will that work? What format would be best, and most importantly, what teams would stay and which teams might be lost?
Reports suggest the top South African teams could make the move up North very soon.https://t.co/Bgwr7V9yyg
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 29, 2020
Further expansion of Guinness PRO Rugby: how would that work?
Should we believe it, that with no Super Rugby competition to play in anymore, where else would the four sides go? South African Rugby would hardly be able to build a local competition; as New Zealand and Australia successfully did in the meantime.
South African (SA) rugby does have a large catchment area but, the contributing nations like Kenya, Madagascar, or even the subcontinent would not be the right competition that tests the World Champion nation’s best.
So heading north is the best bet.
How four teams fit into the current PRO14 alignment is not clear. Not only because two existing South African teams may not want to move (if they had the choice), and that the Celtic League might not be able to expand so easily.
Could it be that, instead of expansion, the stakeholders could consider options apart from increasing to a PRO16 or even a PRO18 structure?
Less is Best – learn from expansion failures
For some, the figure of 12 or even 14 is the maximum number of teams. So adding 4 to 14 should not equal 18. It could be less, and it could demand the creation of a separate competition (or league) that is a feeder system to the desire for Promotion/Relegation.
Less is best, as SANZAAR learned to their detriment. How strong competitions like the EPL and NFL have found that less is best. Widening the base, developing conference systems swelled by evermore teams is not always proven true. Having a supportive, and competitive feeder system is.
By that, you look at models in rugby union now, that work to the benefit of all involved.
Premiership Rugby has that. The New Zealand provincial Mitre 10 Cup to a degree [only with a limited number of sides]. French Top14 and the Pro D2 league work very well.
Each is where a maximum number of sides contribute to an elite 12 or 14 teams, where a tier of a Premiership/Championship system rewards the best team. From that comes the opportunity to rise to higher competition.
European Champions Cup is one, where the Challenge Cup is on a second tier, with the ‘rankings’ and qualification aligned to where you finish in your premier domestic competitions. Elevation comes from performance, and includes a number of teams to equal 20. Although, even that number is seen as ‘too many’ by some.
If the Guinness PRO14 wishes to have the elite best teams, then holding at 14 or even reducing to 12 will produce that. Expanding to 18 may just do the opposite.
Conference systems have their merits although, crossover matches sometimes end in outcomes that can be predictable high-scoring triumphs. Yet on occasion, the odd upset does invigorate the lower placed teams to be motivated to higher placings than preseason predictions might presume.
Home and away fixtures mean 14,000-kilometer transit
Add in one further element for discussion. Distance, and the transit required for more teams to make. It would necessitate European teams making long trips south, to compete in a number of games in Africa – likewise, for South African sides to fly north, and play a large number of fixtures in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Italy.
If the dreaded four-game trip to Australia and New Zealand were difficult, then imagine the schedule that four teams would require?
While the Cheetahs and Southern Kings have had to commute on this scale for the last two seasons, it is weighted in the Northern Hemisphere’s favour. Add more Southern Hemisphere sides, and even a shorter journey to Italy might still feel like an expedition. Four teams, their management, and supporters will have to adopt new habits and adjust to the long haul plane trips on multiple occasions each season.
More games mean more trips, and recovery time is critical in professional rugby. So the advantage of business-class helps; yet as the Southern Kings have found, is financially draining when added to the distress of Covid-19. The Sharks would have to adapt and reinvest heavily in their infrastructure, as would the Stormers, Bulls, and Lions.
Which brings us to the last consideration; is it all viable?
Increased Guinness PRO Rugby costs might ‘spoil the broth’
The one element which is hard to quantify, are revenue estimates. Many know that broadcast income generates the most income. Existing deals are thought to be in the hundreds of millions of US dollars. Would South Africa bring more value?
To a degree, they would likely increase viewers in that market. So yes. Although, would it show growth in European numbers? Not relatively but, that is down to the product and the marketing. If fans are engaged, then viewing numbers, sponsorship, and value-added merchandise could boost revenue.
Yet everything costs more in the pandemic-era. Player welfare is important, as is the inconvenience caused by testing, monitoring the fitness and availability of players, staff, and the facilities. In South Africa, a return to rugby is still not permitted, and when it is possible, costs would mean visiting teams would endure higher costs than estimated.
So if the cost means that it is inhibitive, who would pay? Each nation is in partnership. Italian rugby is a minor partner to the three other nations (Wales, Scotland, and Ireland) while the current two South African teams do not enjoy that same relationship. So, would four new teams earn SA Rugby a dividend?
One would assume so, and if that were not the case, then the financial stability of the Lions would need to be judged first, before they could be expected to cover the increased costs of playing in European competition [whatever the size and format might be].
So while it is more rumour than fact now, all those factors will determine which direction Guinness PRO Rugby goes. Growth versus sustainability. Expansion vs conference systems or feeder systems.
Nevertheless, plenty to contemplate, as the 2019/20 competition approaches the playoffs. Whatever shape or number of teams and designs are in place for the next chapter in European Professional Club Rugby, it still holds a high and valuable place in the sport of rugby union.