Since before the Super Rugby competition kicked off this season, the talk has been dominated by one topic: how many teams will be cut for 2018.
The SANZAAR delegates are meeting in London this week, and the expectation is that a decision will be made on what Super Rugby – and indeed, SANZAAR itself – will look like from next season.
It’s worth remembering at this point that cutting teams is but one of the three options on the table; four, in fact, if you add ‘keep the status quo’ into the mix.
SANZAAR commissioned international consulting firm Accenture to produce a strategic review after the 2016 season, and the report made three suggestions for consideration by SANZAAR and their stakeholders:
1. Dropping one team from South Africa and Australia
2. Dropping two teams from South Africa
3. Expanding the competition even further
As I mentioned, it’s entirely possible that the stakeholders – which include the four national unions and the host broadcasters from those countries – could yet decide to agree to maintain 18 teams and tweak the structure of the conferences. They could also decide to see out the final years of the broadcasting deal that saw the extra teams added in the first place.
It certainly feels unlikely that that will be the case. To hear the acknowledgement from all corners of the SANZAAR universe that the current structure isn’t engaging fans and spectators as they hoped it might is at least refreshing; to ignore it and do nothing would be sheer madness, a new low in common sense.
Yet it continues to astound me that, in Australia at least, the expectation from the outset has been that one team will have to be cut.
This line of commentary has carried on through reports, opinion pieces, and thousands of comments. It’s been so widely written that if you were new to the game, you’d have just accepted this is going to happen.
And in all this, one nagging thought has remained with me: why isn’t Australian rugby fighting for its fifth team?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s never been easier to be down on rugby in Australia. You only have to look to your left or right, and there are plenty of soapboxes for you to step upon and unload on the game. Pick your topic, and have your say.
But what about fighting for the good of Australian rugby?
Ceding more than 30 professional opportunities in Australia does not feel like a move that benefits Australian rugby. Losing 20 per cent of the starting front rowers, or openside flankers, or halves, or back three players in the country does not sound like a move that strengthens the game in Australia.
Even if you managed to keep the top 30 Wallabies players in the country, losing the next 30 to overseas clubs – which will happen, we all know it will – does not consolidate the strength of the talent pool.
It’s more than that, too; all five sides run under-20s programs feeding into the Australian under-20s set-up. So it’s not just the professional level we’re affecting, the next generation will similarly lose their pathway.
And this is why it astounds me that the ARU has been so wishy-washy around the prospect.
The consistent line of commentary since the options were tabled has been along the lines of ‘being part of a joint venture’, and ‘needing to hear the thoughts of our partners’, ‘being fluid about our preferred position going forward’.
Sorry, what now?
Even if all that is true beyond closed doors, what is wrong with actually showing a bit of fight, and making it known publicly that Australia does not want to give up a side? Even if it’s a very real prospect, what would be so wrong with showing the rugby public of Australia that one of our teams just won’t be set adrift and forgotten?
Why should rugby fans in Perth or Canberra or even Melbourne have to hear answers to direct questions about guaranteeing five teams next year begin with, “we can’t make any promises”.
So far, only the Rugby Union Player’s Association has made anything resembling a statement of intent.
“Australia’s professional rugby players are staunch in their opposition to any mooted alternative models which would reduce Australia’s representation in the Super Rugby competition for 2018 and beyond,” the RUPA position stated unequivocally the week before Super Rugby started.
Why couldn’t the ARU have backed this up with a similar position?
By all means, say you want to look at Super Rugby structures and maybe tweak the conferences so they make more sense and involve fewer circumnavigations of the globe – even explore trans-Tasman comps.
But would it be so hard to come out and say five teams is what Australia wants in whatever form Super Rugby takes in 2018? Why not show the fans that Australian rugby is going to put up a fight for the benefit of Australian rugby?
Rugby has never been in a more vulnerable position in Australia, yet the public commentary feels like we’re just preparing to roll over and take whatever’s put in front of us.
I’ve often wondered what ‘the Australian way’ of the playing rugby really is, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t involve meek surrender.