Well, they say that the problem with a compromise is that nobody really gets what they want – I have to say, though, when it comes to yesterday’s Super Rugby restructuring announcement, there certainly is one party that would be more than happy with the outcome and that’s New Zealand.
First things first, though. Let’s have a look at what exactly was actually announced. SANZAAR have pretty much rolled back the clock to the way the competition used to work with 15 teams in the past, with a few notable exceptions. The New Zealand conference remains unchanged, with all five teams guaranteed participation. One team will be cut from the Australian conference, with the ARU set to decide which it will be in due course. The SunWolves, mysteriously spared the axe despite performance, will move into the Australian conference, arguably a more natural fit for them in therms of travel and time zones.
The big losers – at least on paper – are South Africa, who will need to drop two of their six teams as the unwieldy Africa 1 and 2 conferences are collapsed into a single group, comprising four South African teams and the Argentine Jaguares. The resulting three-conference format will, alas, not return to a full “everyone plays everyone else once” model, with SANZAAR’s insistence on local derbies meaning home and away fixtures against conference rivals and matches against four out of five of the teams in each other conference. Yes, once again we have the bizarre situation where each team will not play every other team in a given year. This new format will come into effect from next year.
Now New Zealand will have got exactly what they wanted here. The competition will become more competitive due to the culling of some weak teams – but crucially, none of those will be from their shores. Furthermore, the expansion of the competition into new territories will not be threatened, since Japan and Argentina have survived the chop. How exactly South Africa and Australia were talked into voting for this I’m not sure, but the writing is well on the wall for both countries and despite some initial pain, I can’t help but feel that this is a sensible move. The Australian conference cannot sustain five strong teams at present, neither can South Africa sustain six.
Now, I have some faith that our Australian friends will find a way to quickly an efficiently cull one of their teams – with smart money being on either the Force or the Rebels. Reality is, I don’t care which one they drop, nor how long it takes them to reach that decision. What I do care about, though, is the uncertainty that has been created in South Africa with this announcement, since our sometimes unique situation makes it very difficult to simply select four franchise teams based on performance alone.
Cast your minds back, if you will, to the interminable wrangling that went on the last time Super Rugby franchise awards were made – and then after that to the botched “premonition/relegation” debacle that followed. I must be honest – I have zero confidence that a quick and sensible “culling” will be made here and the resulting uncertainty about the future of any of the six teams will only serve to drive more of our top players overseas.
I advocated for a Bulls-Lions amalgamation on Twitter yesterday. This was tongue in cheek and intended to stir. The reality is that the only sensible and logical option is to follow the money and persist with the four strongest brands. The Lions, Sharks, Bulls and Stormers are the local teams who have the pedigree – and dare I say the “right” – to participate in Super Rugby and the sooner the Cheetahs and Kings are given the bad news the better. Concessions will have to be made and I’m sure they will, but it’s important to get this tough decicion made – at least in principle – as soon as possible.Tweet