Super Rugby divorce: Is it a done deal

Super Rugby divorce
Sharks' center Andre Esterhuizen (L) vies with Stormers' Scarra Ntobeni during the Super Rugby match between the Sharks of Durban and the Stormers of Cape Town held at the Kings Park stadium in Durban on March 14, 2020. (Photo by Anesh Debiky / AFP) (Photo by ANESH DEBIKY/AFP via Getty Images)

The Super Rugby divorce between the Australasian teams, South Africa and Argentina sounds like a done deal. There are lingering questions if this is indeed the case.

Super Rugby divorce

NZ Rugby CEO Mark Robinson announced that New Zealand had committed itself to a new direction at Super Rugby level. In summary, they are considering a competition that includes the five New Zealand teams, two from Australia and possibly one from the Pacific region.

The SA Rugby response was a little more conservative though, with their press release including the statement:

As part of the SANZAAR joint venture we will be examining how the mooted new competition will fit into the existing contracted competitions.

Reading between the lines, SA Rugby doesn’t believe that the Super Rugby divorce is quite done yet and is expecting NZ Rugby to honour the current contract that runs through to 2025.

The risk for Australasian Rugby

New Zealand Rugby is calling the shots in this proposed tournament. The expectation seems to be that Rugby Australia will accede to their demand that they field only two teams. This does not serve Australian rugby well and also assumes that players will naturally migrate to those two teams. If displaced players opt-out and seek to further their careers elsewhere, possibly in Europe, the intent to assemble two teams of comparative strength to the New Zealand teams falls flat.

The proposed inclusion of a Pacific island team is a wonderful concept. The big proviso here is if such a team can attract enough sponsorship to retain enough quality players to be competitive.

If this competition does fall flat, New Zealand Rugby is back to square one. Rugby Australia would be in a desperate position. Two of their teams would have been sacrificed to join the Western Force in dropping down to Australia’s National Rugby Championship.

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Alternative options

We might expect all of the members of SANZAAR to get their legal teams involved to determine what would constitute a breach of contract by any of the members, or are there exit clauses that would allow New Zealand and Australia to legally exit the current contract.

There are few alternative options being bandied about for the South African teams and we take a look at some of those options.

Looking North

There would be no viable options for SA Rugby other than to look to the Northern Hemisphere for an international competition that fits in between domestic and Test rugby. The route they follow could have a significant impact on the local rugby landscape.

Competing in the Northern Hemisphere makes sense for the South African rugby audience. The time zones are much more agreeable for the viewing public, with away matches taking place in the afternoon much like home matches.

PRO14 Rugby

South African rugby has a foot in the door in PRO14 rugby, with the Cheetahs and the Kings already in the competition. The big question here is if adding another 4 South African teams creates a PRO18 competition, or will the Cheetahs and Kings once again be sidelined? We have seen this format before and it did not work in Super Rugby. Dividing 18 into a six-team, three conference system does not work and Super Rugby proved that. The format was not supported by the viewing public.

The only way it can work is if the competition followed a pool format. Eighteen does not divide well into four pools, so sixteen has to be the number. It would be safe to assume that the top four South African teams, the Sharks, Stormers, Bulls and Lions would make the cut. The Cheetahs, one of South Africa’s great rugby nurseries, would once again be left out in the cold. The struggling Kings, who have now also lost their title sponsor, were promised top-flight rugby in the Eastern Cape. A promise that was made to national Government. SA Rugby’s conundrum here is that this commitment is irrelevant to the other nations competing in PRO rugby.

Rumours out of Europe over the weekend is that under this type of tournament structure, South African teams could be able to qualify for Champions Cup Rugby.

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Champions Cup Rugby

Another option might require a complete rethink by SA Rugby, South Africa’s provincial unions and the rugby public. If Northern Hemisphere rugby really wants to see South African teams competing in Europe, the answer may not lay in PRO Rugby. It may just be found in a combination of Europe’s top club competition, the Champions Cup, and the oldest domestic rugby competition in the world, the Currie Cup. This is very much a “what if” scenario, but worth exploring.

If South Africa no longer competes in Super Rugby and needs to find space for the six teams currently competing in regional competitions, the other alternative would be to use the Currie Cup as a qualifier as an entry to Champions Cup Rugby. There is currently a significant difference in quality between the Champions Cup and the Currie Cup, but if the Currie Cup replaces Super Rugby then the quality players that have not played in the Currie Cup for years would be committed to the domestic competition.

This is the most unlikely solution, but there is an escape route that SA Rugby might want to consider. It might mean a ten-team Currie Cup, but a return to higher quality competition, giving the Cheetahs and Kings the opportunity to compete and qualify for higher honours.

What of the Jaguares?

This could be the saddest part of the Super Rugby divorce. The team was created to develop local Argentine talent, but to also to retain talent in their system who would otherwise be attracted to European competitions. At this stage, the Argentines don’t appear to have any options open to them. If the Australasian exit from Super Rugby is indeed legal, they are shut out from there. Do they have the financial resources to buy their way into European competition? Could Major League Rugby be their saviour?

This story still has a long way to run. All we can do is hope that the relevant rugby authorities make decisions that make rugby sense, considering all the ramifications of each decision.

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