On Sunday 9 April, SANZAAR announced that three Super Rugby franchises would be culled from the Super Rugby competition in 2018.
Three Super Rugby Franchises Culled
With the continued erosion of quality in the competition, this came as no surprise. What has been surprising has been the tardy handling of the situation. Often, discussion has been publicly visible. No final decision has been made yet as to who will be left out. That has been left to the national governing bodies to work through. SANZAAR expanded the competition to 18 teams from the start of the 2016 season, citing “needed expansion of the game”, but they have been very quiet in terms of standing up to the fact that they got it wrong.
We take a look at where the competition stands right now, before the three departing franchises are announced.
The Confirmed Teams
As leaders in terms of quality, all the New Zealand teams have been confirmed as remaining in the competition. The Jaguares have also been confirmed for 2018 and not many can begrudge them that. They had a tough first season in the competition in 2016, but look to be a lot more competitive in 2017. The Sunwolves have been spared the cut. According to SANZAAR, this was done in accordance with their expansion plans into the Asian market. That should surely be a World Rugby initiative and not a SANZAAR one though? Many people feel that this is purely to prop the Japanese game up until the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and what happens after that is open for debate. Their results certainly do not justify them being retained over a possible departing team such as the Cheetahs. If we accept that they are part of SANZAAR’s growth plans, there should have been a proviso in place that the Sunwolves need to garner full support from their professional clubs to release their best available players to compete in the competition.
The Australian Conundrum
The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) look to be facing a real problem. They have identified the Western Force and the Melbourne Rebels as the two franchises under threat. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the ARU have made financial commitments to both the Force and the Rebels, with contracts in place until 2020. Their unpacking of the situation is well worth a read in order to understand the context of the problem they are facing.
Both franchises have already confirmed that they intend following the legal route should they be dropped from the competition, so the Australian Conference may well be decided in court. The ARU originally announced that their decision would be made known within 24 to 72 hours. With the threat of facing long legal proceedings now a reality, they will have to follow due process to ensure their decision making is completely transparent.
The South African Complexity
The South African Conference should be relatively easy to sort out. Setting provincial biases aside, history should point to the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers being retained as the four remaining Super Rugby franchises. Will it be that easy though and will that necessarily be the best thing for the game in the country?
A Franchise Committee has been established and they met for the first time on Tuesday 11 April to decide on the criteria to be used to decide on the four competing teams. This will be a weighted measure considering financial and economic sustainability; a sustainable support base; team performance; and stadium and facilities. We take a look at some of the problems facing the game in South Africa since the decision was made to reduce the number of teams competing.
This has been done before in the guise of the Cats, a combined team drawn from the Lions and the Cheetahs. This proved to be an administrative nightmare and was unpopular with players and fans alike. The same can be said of a possible merger between the Lions and the Bulls. They are in close proximity of each other, but their cultures are so opposed to each other than we cannot imagine how it would work. It would also be a challenge to market a “Gauteng Gnu’s” team to their separate fan bases. South Africans are generally parochial in supporting a team and will not accept the change in identity.
Political Commitments – The Inconvenient Kings
The South African Rugby Union (SARU) made a commitment to national government to bring top flight rugby back to the Eastern Cape Province. The activation of this has been extremely poor. Expecting a Union with no cash, poor administration, a Currie Cup First Division squad and no title sponsor to suddenly assemble a competitive squad is fanciful at best. The Kings were forced to bring in loan players who were surplus to requirements at other Super Rugby franchises to supplement their squad. SARU is carrying the wage bill for this squad, paying the minimum wage allowed according to the rules of the competition.
The elephant in the room here is that government could possibly reject any plan to exclude the Kings from Super Rugby. This may include withdrawing government support for SARU’s bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. This problem will be compounded by the fact that SARU recently took the decision to relegate the Kings from the Premier Division of the Currie Cup. No Super Rugby and no Currie Cup Premier Division status might be a little too unpalatable for national government. The Kings, along with the Cheetahs who are also under threat of exclusion, are best placed to assist the game to meet the transformation targets expected of SARU. Excluding them and concentrating rugby excellence in four cities will make it a lot more difficult to identify black talent in the rural areas, especially given the decisions made relating to finances as discussed below. South Africa may just face the reality, as Australia is, that their competing teams might not be decided by rugby people.
SARU have made one further critical decision. Money earned in each competition will be shared among the teams competing in that competition. Previously, Super Rugby earnings was shared across South Africa’s 14 provincial rugby unions. The is understandable and sad at the same time. It is understandable as the cash can be used by the four surviving Super Rugby franchises to retain their top players.
It is sad that smaller unions such as Griquas and Pumas will have less money available to build a competitive squad to take the bigger unions on and spring the occasional surprise that the competition needs to add some spice.
The Franchise Committee really faces an impossible task as they will not be able to make a decision that will make everyone happy. There will be a lot of unhappy people and rugby Unions that they will be unable to accommodate in the new structure.
We can only hope that both SARU and the ARU are able to resolve the challenges they face right now and are able to make decisions are good for the game in their respective countries.