On Super Rugby Reducing to 15 teams…

Finally, SANZAAR, the organizing committee for the great Southern Hemisphere competition decided to revert the tournament to 15 teams. 2 teams will be cut from South Africa and 1 from Australia. It is now up to the Rugby Unions of these countries to determine what teams to be axed. One thing is for sure, the two latest franchises, Japanese-based Sunwolves and Argentina-based Jaguares, will still be in the competition.

This is great for Super Rugby as a whole because at times the level of competition seems unfair. I can’t say that I’ve watched a single Kings game, or single Cheetahs game this year. The level of competition has dwindled and as a rugby fan first, unless it’s a NZ or SA derby involving the Stormers, Sharks, or Lions, Super Rugby has become too saturated. Having great players on bad teams can be interesting to watch how they elevate their team through their quality, but have too many of those bad teams and there’s no competitive edge. A few years ago, Willie Le Roux played on a Cheetahs team that had it’s moments but wasn’t that great. A South African fullback looking to run first as opposed to looking for the skies was rare for that time in SA rugby. His perfomances at full back earned him a Springbok jersey and the Cheetahs became sort of fun to watch just by seeing how he elevated the game of those around him. A rare case.

And it’s not even a matter of bias, but any games not involving Kiwi sides or these 3 SA sides or the Brumbies (I’d add the Reds simply because I lived in Brisbane), I hesitate to watch. A few years back I’d go whole weekends without missing a single Super Rugby game but from last season, some games I’m sure I’ll not be watching by the beginning of that week. And it’s not just 1 or 2 games, it’s possible I miss even 4 games in a week now, because the Australian conference isn’t giving much hope either especially how bad the Waratahs have been. From a talent perspective, I believe this reduction of teams will benefit Australian teams with an infusion of quality by removing one team. And that elevates the level of competitiveness across the hemisphere when they meet Kiwi or SA sides.

Axing a Team In Australia Harder Than You Think

The Australian Rugby Union is yet to decide what team to remove from Super Rugby, but as of now, there’s a whole lot of politics going on between the ARU and the rugby unions of Western Australia (where the Western Force are based) and Victoria (where the Melbourne Rebels are based). We know it’ll be one of them, but which one? It’s not clear as to which team will get the axe, but it all seems likely that the Force might not participate in the competition next year. This will mean the local Australian competition will be the highest level of rugby in the territory of Western Australia.

The National Rugby Championship (NRC) of Australia had it’s inaugural season in 2014. Still very new but it’s a way of trying to develop talent across Australia. Each territory/state in Australia has it’s own competition, and by creating the NRC, the intention was to get the best players in each state’s competition to form a team (2 from QLD and 3 from NSW), and compete against each other in a nationwide tournament of 9 teams. A team from Fiji will join this year. So far so good for the NRC. Fact remains, Australia is important to make Super Rugby a top competition, but Rugby Union will never be as big as Rugby League and having 5 franchises is just too much, and has saturated that talent. Funny thing is that the Force, from Perth might get kicked out, yet Perth Spirit are the reigning NRC champions.

Here is where it gets complicated regarding who gets to go. From my understanding, The Force are owned by the ARU whereas the Rebels are privately owned. According to the ARU constitution, if a team was to be expelled from Super Rugby, all voting members (the voting members comprise the state and territory rugby unions, the Super Rugby licensees and the Rugby Union Players Association) must vote on it and the decision must be unanimous. But since, the Western Force were taken over by the ARU, they don’t have a vote. And the Rebels will not vote against themselves of course. This leaves a very murky situation if the Rebels vote against the Force and the others vote against them. The Rebels seem to be safe on the basis of that, but the Force too may have an argument in this. The ARU signed an agreement to keep them in Super Rugby as long as the current broadcast agreement is still in place. By SANZAAR announcing the reduction from 18 to 15 teams, we don’t know if they will re-negotiate a new TV deal, but if the current one remains next year, they have an argument.

The Force have been a Super Rugby franchise for a long time, this being their 12th year, and the Rebels are on their 7th. As you can see, it’s more complicated than letting the better established team stay in the comp. If it were up to me, I’d just let the two battle it out on the field, a one-off match for Super Rugby rights…

Less Complicated In South Africa

We are almost sure it will be the Kings and Cheetahs to be given the boot in South Africa. The Kings have been a stuttering experiment thus far. They’ve been in and out of the comp in recent years when SA had a promotion-relegation system for whoever finished last in that conference, but have consistently failed to develop players worthy of consistently donning the green and gold Bok jersey. The Cheetahs really haven’t progressed and with the capitulation of the Springboks yesteryear, there’s a need to strengthen the core franchises, the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers.

South Africa has the highest number of registered rugby players of any country in the world, they’d probably field 7 or 8 Super Rugby teams with ease. Yet, the talent and quality is not coming through with 6, or talented players just aren’t playing with enough talented players. The emergence of the Currie Cup as one of the great local competitions, probably only second to the Mitre 10 Cup of New Zealand in terms of quality, makes this an easier decision for SANZAAR. It’s a different case when compared to that in Australia where the competition is barely three years old. There’s been whispers that they might revert to the promotion-relegation system. Imagine a scenario where the SA sides all have a great year and maybe 3 of them make the playoffs, but, for example, the Stormers happen to be last… Would anyone want to see them relegated for a Cheetahs or Kings outfit for the following season??

In a 15-team competition, chances are, the Sunwolves would be added to the Australian conference and the Jaguares to the South African, or vice versa. If the South African Rugby Union decided to go back to a promotion-relegation system, I doubt they Jaguares or Sunwolves would be part of that and it would only involve the SA-based teams.

Sunwolves and Jaguares are here to stay… at least until RWC 2019

Japan is a relatively new market to Super Rugby, but also is a very lucrative one for SANZAAR. It’s a win-win having the Sunwolves in Super Rugby. For starters, it’s Japan’s only Super Rugby franchise which means the coaching staff has a wide pool of players to select and develop from, and these players are exposed to a high level of competition. On the other hand, Japan has a well-established and well-funded local tournament which attracts players from the Tasman region and South Africa. It’s no secret the victory against South Africa in the 2015 RWC (their first ever against a top tier rugby nation), accompanied by them successfuly winning the bid to host the 2019 version of the tournament, boosted interest in the sport. The likes of Fourie du Preez, Liam Messam and Stephen Larkham have all played in Japan. This rugby growth attracts a very high crowd week in week out, providing a great atmosphere and exposing many more fans, with a high purchasing power of merchandise, to the rest of Super Rugby. A factor that any rugby body would want to capitalize on.

The Jaguares are in their second season alongside the Sunwolves, but have won a few more matches. It’s in the interest of SANZAAR, to keep the Jaguares as we have all seen the type of force the Argentina national side is becoming. Argentina has no local competition but have time and again beaten top tier nations, they should now be considered one. The Tri Nations tournament involved 3 Southern Hemisphere countries: Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, until 2012 when Argentina joined and it was renamed the Rugby Championship. That even made SANZAAR be renamed, previously called SANZAR, to accomodate the inclusion of Argentina. They have lots of players plying their trade in Europe, and have a team in the Currie Cup but the involvement in the Rugby Championship cemented their place. Now they are well established and have even avoided the wooden spoon in 2015. Their lack of a local competition and need for Argentina players to play in the same team and develop that chemistry between them is a big reason why they will keep their place in Super Rugby.

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