Possibly the biggest changes to the professional game are currently afoot, with South Africa sitting in the middle of what could become a fascinating tug-of-war.
Long have there been whispers, press releases, threats, whispers and conjecture. Earlier this week the British and French rugby clubs made public their intention to break-away from the current premier club rugby competition in the Northern hemisphere, namely the Heineken Cup.
From a South African perspective, the timing is impeccable. At a time where there are serious negotiations underway with regards to the future of Super Rugby, and with the Australians seemingly pushing for a two pool Super Rugby championship (pushing SA into the Argentinian wilderness) and South Africa’s request for a sixth team seemingly being rebuffed by SANZAR, another door has possibly been opened.
It’s an open secret that there are tensions in the SANZAR alliance and for several years SARU has made overtures that they would look north if their demands were not met. Whilst there have always been questions about where the South Africans would fit into a northern hemisphere competition, through an incredibly fortuitous turn of events, that question has now been answered. Whilst not explicitly mentioned in the statement made by the Premier league earlier this week, the English and French clubs have announced they will be breaking away from the Heineken Cup and would establish their own competition, with teams from other countries being considered. The obvious implications are that they are referring to South Africa as she offers a lucrative market, competitive teams and is in the right time-zone.
There are massive benefits for South Africa here. At the very least it puts SARU back in the driving seat with regards to negotiations with SANZAR. As the biggest revenue generator in the alliance, and now with other options to explore, it is quite feasible that SARU will be able to play one side up against the other.
My opinion is that Super Rugby is a tired competition and continual expansion year after year is not serving to revitalise the competition, but rather the opposite; its diluting the game and the entertainment value offered to fans.
The benefits to the South African provinces in joining a northern Hemisphere competition are numerous. There will be a greater share of the revenue generated, which may just be enough for the provinces to be able to offer their players packages comparable to those currently on offer in Europe. The travel is easier, the games are on at better times and its fresh. Can you imagine the Sharks playing Toulouse in the Shark Tank? Or the Bulls taking on Leicester in Welford Road, Stormers versus Harlequins at the Twuickenham Stoop? Massive Wembley double-headers, like the London sides are now doing to open the season? I’m salivating at the prospect.
The obvious losers here are New Zealand. The Australians have long wanted a more integrated competition with the kiwis; one gets the impression they’d be happy if they got rid of South Africa altogether. The standard of rugby in New Zealand will doubtlessly slip if South Africa is not there to provide stiffer competition and toughen up their forward packs. The Australians are already on a nasty downward trend; this will only serve to exacerbate this.
In short, it’s all there to play for if SARU can get their strategic thinking right and can successfully negotiate their way through the conflicting wants and needs of all those involved.
Inclusion in a northern hemisphere competition, with fresh opposition and different challenges, will be massively exciting for both fans and players alike.
From a South African perspective, we’re sitting pretty, but there is another option, the Go Big or Go Home option.
The premise of the GBoGH option is thus: there have been no major changes to international club rugby competition, virtually since the day rugby went professional. The Super 10 was launched in 1995, as was the Heineken Cup. There’s been tinkering around the edges and expansion in both competitions over the years, but the basics have remained the same, one is a premier club competition in the northern hemisphere, with the other in the southern hemisphere and never the two shall meet.
Fortuitously, both are now falling to pieces at the same. The GBoGH option entails South Africa not breaking away from SANZAR, but rather SANZAR inviting the English and French to join the world’s first truly global club competition. It would be a competition that represented most of the world’s club elite, with the notable exception probably being Munster.
It would take some deft footwork by those holding the keys in the corridors of rugby power, but it would definitely be workable.
There is something in this for everyone – Super Rugby is stale and has been crying out for change for years; this could be it. The Australians want a tighter competition with New Zealand – let them have it. We could play in pools just like they have suggested, with SA joining the English and French clubs, Australia can play with New Zealand, Japan, Pacific Islands and anybody else they care to include. The English and French are happy – they now get to play in a strength versus strength competition against the best in the world and get to play in a competition free of the socialistic aspect that has plagued the international clubs competitions in Europe. They’ll pack out grounds in the UK and there players get to savour playing rugby in the Republic.
This does entail a lot of give-and-take, but professional rugby has long been due a radical shake-up. Once new deals are inked over the coming years, the chances of a truly global club competition will slowly vanish as vested interests and inertia take over. This is the chance for all involved to create something truly special. It’s an opportunity that is unlikely to come around again for a very long time.
And in the middle of it all sits South Africa, with the ability to fashion themselves a king-maker and lead the process of developing the professional game.
There will be large barriers to making this a reality, especially on the part of SANZAR I’d imagine, but my suggestion is as follows. The Heineken Cup is dead and Super Rugby is also at a cross-roads. The radical idea would be to do a one-off tournament next year, before the northern hemisphere clubs get pushed and locked into another multi-year deal with broadcasters, sponsors and the like.
Why not try it – just for one year. The crowds will be there, the sponsors will line-up and the television revenues have the potential to be enormous. If it doesn’t work, it’ll go down in history as an interesting experiment whereby the north-south debate was settled once and for all. Thereafter all can return to the status quo.
At the very least we’ll have a few months of novel, entertaining rugby, showcasing contrasting styles, played in varying conditions.
But if it works… we could potentially have a fascinating competition that could transform the club game and herald the next chapter in the story of the professional game.
At the very least it will make for exciting viewing and a change from the same old, same old dished up every year.