Heineken Cup split a trump card for South Africa’s Super Rugby hopes

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News that English and French clubs plan to break away from the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup competitions – coupled to their invitation to other countries to join them – has implications for Super Rugby because it puts South Africa in charge of negotiations.

There’s been a lot of speculation about how Super Rugby is set to change, with the most popular speculation that Australia and New Zealand will form one pool and South Africa and Argentina (with possibly Japan or a Pacific Island team), in the other.

The general feeling from Australia has been that it is South Africa who is upsetting the apple cart by demanding a sixth team – which is of course true, thanks to internal politics.

In fact I would suggest that the political priorities will take precedence over what’s good for the game in South Africa.

Some would argue that a sixth team is a long term investment and while South Africa may suffer from a lack of better competition from Australia and New Zealand in the short term, the country will at least enjoy more derbies and the long term benefits of the new competition will be good for rugby its self.

Australian officials have been particularly keen to send South Africa off into the Argentine wilderness and have been driving the new proposals very strongly, but the break-up of the Heineken Cup suddenly puts South Africa in the driving seat because it offers real alternatives.

Simply put, if South Africa does not get what it wants, it could go north.

I for one would feel ill if Mr Bill Pulver got his way with the two-pool system.

The South African politicians would be happy because a sixth teams offers opportunities to redress racial imbalances, and the quality of South African rugby be damned.

South Africa would be consigned to the equivalent of kindergarten rugby – essentially babysitting fledgling nations. Nobody gets better playing themselves or teams weaker than they are.

It would be bad news for South Africa and bad news for Southern Hemisphere rugby – in fact, if the new Super Rugby format were to go through, South Africa could kiss goodbye any chance of ever winning a Rugby Championship, never mind the Rugby World Cup.

However, the announcement by Premiership Rugby, representing the English clubs and French counterpart Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR), to set up a new European competition means South Africa will probably keep its sixth team and still get to play in the sandbox with the big kids (namely the All Blacks and Wallabies).

A statement from the English and French clubs said they would terminate the current European Rugby Cup (ERC) competitions at the end of this season.

The statement read:

“Despite numerous meetings between the stakeholders over the last year, the last of which was in May, discussions have been unsuccessful and the clubs can only conclude that negotiations on any new European agreement have now ended.

“However, given the importance and urgency of the current position, and the reconfirmation that the French clubs will not participate in any competition unless it includes the English clubs, the clubs have now asked Premiership Rugby to take immediate action to put in place a competition for 2014/15 to include the French and English clubs but which will also be open to teams from other countries.”

The words “open to teams from other countries” must be music to the ears of South African administrators who, I believe, have just been handed a trump card.

My hope is that common sense will prevail; that Super Rugby will be split into two pools featuring a mix of South African, Australian and Argentine teams.

If it’s one thing South African rugby does not need, it’s a repeat of a glorified Currie Cup competition featuring minnows from Argentina, Japan and any other country outside the top five.

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