It was a relief to see some rugby break out over the weekend. Yet another comeback win by the Crusaders, more muddling from the Waratahs, Quade being Quade, and in Paris, a reiteration of that old cliché, rugby is a game that goes for the whole 100 minutes.
This will, however, provide only temporary relief, as attention swings back to SANZAAR and the will-they-won’t-they speculation about the future of Super Rugby.
Since SANZAAR met in London nine days ago, fans have been fed a daily diet of conflicting and contradictory rumour, fuelling calls for Bill Pulver to come out of hiding and put either the Force, Brumbies or Rebels out of their misery, or else get on with things.
That the agenda has become intensely focused on the here and now – a reduction in the number of sides in Super Rugby and deciding who gets the chop – completely misses the real issue that the southern hemisphere unions are wrestling with.
For a start, SANZAAR is merely a construct, a mechanism by which the four member unions co-operate to administer and run international and provincial/franchise competitions that best suit their individual and collective wants.
Clearly, the domestic landscape and needs of each union are quite different. There are acute political problems in South African rugby, dwindling participation and entrenched parochialism in Australia, as well as inability to generate public attention and revenue in a fiercely competitive domestic sports market.
Argentina lacks for infrastructure, money and a deep professional player base. Only New Zealand sits comfortably, awaiting a huge payday from this year’s Lions tour, although their position is more tenuous than it appears on the surface.
Wiser heads know that their strength is only as lasting as the enduring collective strength that comes with standing alongside three healthy partners.
What is common to all four nations is player flight to the rich northern hemisphere competitions. It is this, and the existential threat this poses to southern hemisphere rugby as we now know it, that is at the heart of the current Super Rugby wrangling.
Just as displaced factory workers in Michigan or typesetters on traditional daily newspapers are victims of unrelenting technological advance, so too are southern hemisphere rugby nations increasingly powerless to control their future; in this case, to compete commercially with their northern hemisphere counterparts.
Basic demographics tell us why. Roughly, the market for rugby in just the south of France comprises 24 million people, and in England it is estimated that around 14 million people have some reasonable level of understanding or interest in rugby.
How many across all the SANZAAR nations? Perhaps 9-10 million on a good day?
Translate that into higher numbers of European and UK TV broadcasters competing intensely for viewers and digital footprints, and one begins to understand how money flows into the game, commensurate with the size and scope of the commercial opportunity – money that inexorably flows into player salaries.
Where the southern unions are concerned, what some people criticise as administrative greed and hubris, others recognise as the pursuit of the only option available: to devise, maintain and grow revenue streams that allow them to retain elite players in their competitions.
Without that, they are merely consigning themselves to the status of the footballing nations of Africa, the Caribbean and Scandinavia. They are nothing more than feeder nations to the EPL and La Liga, with fans only sighting their best players in designated international windows. And only then, if fitness and motivation allow.
Whatever Michael Cheika’s frustrations at a losing 2016, imagine how he would cope with the hand dealt to his Socceroos counterpart? Anyone like to guess when Ange Postecoglou was last able to field an international side that was his first choice?
In this context, it is easier to understand how SANZAAR got to where they are now – four proud rugby nations trying to protect their futures – although it is less easy to forgive the clumsy way they have gone about it and accept the untenable situation that exists today.
Whatever one thinks about the expansion to 18 teams, inviting the Sunwolves into such a hot competition without ensuring that they had sufficient player resources and preparation time – effectively setting them up to fail – borders on lunacy.
By contrast, note how AFL expansion club, the Greater Western Sydney Giants, last year received $21 million in grants from their central body.
And to have some franchises today notionally under the shadow of the executioner’s axe, competing against other settled franchises, is inexcusably unfair.
Last year SANZAAR commissioned management consulting company, Accenture, to conduct a strategic review, ultimately aimed at identifying the best long-term strategy. That the scheduled release date came and went without any definitive outcome indicates the complexity and depth of the problem.
As a result, SANZAAR’s fall back position – take a deep breath and forge ahead with a Super Rugby competition nobody loves and few understand – was exposed before this year’s action barely got started. Spin doctors like to highlight the importance of maintaining control of the controllables, but SANZAAR’s dithering, and the need to rush to London, is a reactive response that reflects how they ceded control of the situation.
12, 15 and 24 teams are workable numbers from which a meaningful competition can be structured; the higher number providing for logically structured conferences or divisions. But 18 is no man’s land; it was always a temporary stop on the path to someplace else.
As a result, if some of the rumours are to be believed, it seems possible that long-term strategy is to be replaced by policy on the run; never a basis for sound decision-making.
Whatever is finally announced, the notion run by some in the media that Bill Pulver is Nero nibbling away on cucumber sandwiches while Rome burns shows little understanding of the situation.
The decision everyone is waiting for has little to do with the Force’s record since joining in 2006, or the Rebels getting hammered in the first two rounds this season, or Canberra appearing to have limited capacity for commercial growth.
Any change to the competition must be made incorporating the TV rights holders. For SANZAAR to act unilaterally, without respect for the organisations funding it (to the extent that the next rights deal in total is anticipated to exceed AU$1 billion), is unthinkable, if not contractually impossible.
Consider also that the current rights deal comprises no less than 11 different media entities, spread across the globe.
Be in no doubt that whatever the outcome, it will be because the rights holders consent or, at the very least, receive suitable compensation for any reduction in the number of matches played. You can imagine how that will play out in the ARU’s already fragile cash flow forecast.
Super Rugby is a mess because the four member unions have essentially tried to solve all of their problems in one hit, using a club competition and an international competition in tandem. Perhaps if they had their time again – or if they have the will to make a fresh start – they would separate the international and club games, and copy the model that works successfully in the UK.
Meanwhile, those who demand that Australian rugby makes its own way and reverts to a solution that is best for Australia only should be careful what they wish for.
Such a route is valid, but only if one accepts that the best final outcome will only ever be a low-level domestic competition; perhaps something akin to football’s A-League. With no meaningful TV money, Australia flying solo will never sustain an elite professional competition containing some, or even any, of the world’s best players.
Reminiscing about Australian rugby’s halcyon days – whenever they were – pays no account to the very real differences between the amateur and professional eras, and what motivates young men and their partners today.
To close this week by acknowledging both Ireland and England, as the 2017 Six Nations wrapped up in Dublin, in a match where the quality of the rugby never matched the occasion.
Ireland has now, in one season, stopped the lengthy unbeaten run of rugby’s two powerhouses. Everybody knows they have the ability and passion to fire up for special occasions. Their challenge now is to prove – to themselves as much as anyone – that they have the discipline and depth in their squad to make this performance benchmark the norm rather than the exception.
Kudos too, to England. Successive Six Nations championships is a worthy prize, and Eddie Jones and his players generously accepted that they were second best on the day.
In the lead up, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was genuine and magnanimous in his acknowledgement of England’s achievement in matching his side’s 18 consecutive wins. One suspects that if Ireland had faltered he would be sleeping just as easily.
But given this record was for most rugby followers not even on the radar a year or two ago, and that both New Zealand and England’s runs didn’t include a match against each other, 18-18 seems a pretty good place to leave things.
Whether 18 remains the magic number for Super Rugby remains to be seen.