It is all about money. In particular, it’s all about television money, and TV (along with international rugby) is one of the two main generators of revenue in professional rugby.
Back in May 2016, the French clubs signed a deal with broadcaster Canal+ that guaranteed £305m ($510m AUD) over four years (starting in the 2018-19 season) for the rights to show matches from the Top 14 and Pro D2 in France. That works out at £76m ($127m) in revenue per season.
One year earlier, the CEO of Premiership Rugby in England, Mark McCafferty, had announced a new six-year deal with BT Sport which purported to raise revenue from broadcasting rights from £38m ($63m) per annum by 80 per cent, to approximately £68m ($113m) p/a.
The Guinness Pro 12, containing regional sides from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy, is the poor relation in the Northern Hemisphere, generating only £11m ($18m) p/a from the existing contract with Sky Sports.
For the Pro 12, the introduction of the two axed South African franchises – the Cheetahs and Kings – is like manna from heaven, because it brings with it access to the South African TV market, which up until now has always been the bedrock of Super Rugby broadcast revenue. It is estimated that market could boost income for the Pro 12 clubs by as much as £10m ($16m) p/a overall.
It was ex-Southern Spears CEO Tony McKeever who originally proposed the idea to his Pro 12 counterpart Martin Anayi. McKeever believes that the move “sends a potent message to SANZAAR” and will result in higher TV ratings for the new Pro 14 competition, as well as providing a platform for the careers of South African exiles who are already playing in Europe.
McKeever thinks that the move will spell the end of the “incoherent” Super Rugby tournament, at least in its current form: “You can hear the death-knell of Super Rugby, it’s going to expire”.
It appears the Sharks were also keen to join the Pro 12 at the same time as the Cheetahs and Kings, which only adds weight to McKeever’s argument.
If South Africa really does want to change its spots and exit SANZAAR, then a progressive move into the European market via the Pro 12 makes sense. The Cheetahs and the Kings test the waters, the other four franchises follow when the wrinkles in the new tournament (and there will be many) are ironed out.
As the Pro 12 becomes more marketable, there is the prospect of a full-blown British and Irish league, or even a European league including teams from France and South Africa, further down the line. The money is already there.
This is not a new development. Not so very long ago, European champions Saracens were viewed as a beachhead for South Africa to expand into European club competition. They are still backed heavily by money from the Republic, with Johann Rupert enjoying a 50 per cent stake in the club, and Springboks like Schalk Burger, Vincent Koch, Schalk Brits and (up until recently) Alistair Hargreaves and Neil de Kock on their playing roster.
If South Africa does take its wares, and in particular its television audience, elsewhere, the impact on Super Rugby could be either transformative or catastrophic, depending on your viewpoint.
A new trans-Tasman tournament would (presumably) require a renegotiation of the existing TV deal to take account of South Africa’s absence. Private investment, such as the support recently offered to the Western Force by billionaire Andrew Forrest, may be increasingly welcomed.
But what form would that investment take? Would it mean the franchise following the European model into private ownership?
The Force have shown, by winning four out of their last six matches, that they are not ready to go gently into that good night. They are fully prepared to rage against the dying of the light.
In their last round trouncing of the Waratahs, they also pointed up some of the defensive problems the Tahs’ defensive coach Nathan Grey (who also doubles up in the same role for the Wallabies) will have to solve in the forthcoming Rugby Championship.
In handling conditions which were far from ideal, and without any ‘stars’ (bar Dane Haylett-Petty) behind the scrum, the Force scored five tries and generated nine clean breaks in the course of the game.
With the echoes of the recent series between the British and Irish Lions and New Zealand still fresh in the mind, it showed that defences based on the rush or press are far from all alike.
There were some typical examples of the way Andy Farrell’s defence behaves in the article I wrote after the Maori game on the Lions tour.
Dense triangles of pressure around the first and second receiver, with everyone on the defensive line coming up quickly and collectively, are characteristic of the Farrell method.
Nathan Grey’s system is a different and more complex mix. While defenders are nearly always fired out of the line at the likely receivers of the first and second pass, they are often coming on individual ‘shoots’ rather than as part of a collective press.
For that reason, I call Grey’s system the ‘shoot and drift’. Some defenders are shooting straight upfield, others are drifting across and reading the play as it develops. Any confusion in roles can result in the breakdowns which gave the Force so many attacking opportunities over the weekend.
Basic defensive issues were announced at the very beginning of the game.
In the first frame, the Tahs are in good shape, with equal numbers to the Force attack out on the right side of the field. But in the second shot at 00:41 things have already begun to fall apart around the ruck.
Force scrumhalf Michael Ruru peeps out to attract Jack Dempsey at guard, and the defender outside him (David Horwitz) then feels he must step in to attack the first receiver in Dane Haylett-Petty. There is no chance of Horwitz preventing the pass, so the Tahs defence has in effect voluntarily created an overlap for the Force.
The defender outside Horwitz (no.11 Cam Clark) is committed to a drift instead of pressing up on Curtis Rona, and the player inside him is a much slower tight forward, Damien Fitzpatrick. This gives Rona just enough room to conjure up a bit of magic on the offload and create the score.
Different versions of the same situation recurred throughout the game with monotonous regularity.
The Tahs’ number 8, Michael Wells, fires out at Billy Meakes at first receiver after a tapped penalty, with Taqele Naiyaravoro standing about ten metres behind him. It is a hopeless situation for the Tahs’ wingman, with six Force attackers arrayed outside Meakes. All Meakes has to do is make one simple pass to unlock the overlap.
In this scenario (the second phase after a Waratah turnover) Force lock Matt Philip is standing at first receiver. It is obvious he has made up his mind to pass rather than run, it is just a question whether he makes the tip-on pass to Tetera Faulkner directly outside him or the pull-back to Meakes in the second line of attack.
The key defender opposite Faulkner (Bernard Foley) has the option of taking him behind the gain-line if the tip-on is made, to sliding off and joining the defensive line if the pull-back option is chosen.
Instead, Foley continues his upfield rush into no man’s land, even though Meakes has two good options available – the lay-off to Jono Lance circling around him, or the riskier wide pass to Curtis Rona.
Meakes chooses to take the risk and makes a wobbly delivery in the general direction of Rona. It is not a good pass, but Rona is able to exploit exactly the same tendency we saw from Foley opposite first receiver.
This time it is Waratahs number 8 Michael Wells who shoots straight upfield – and straight past the play when Rona leaves the ball to go through to Haylett-Petty! Everyone else on the Waratahs defence is running a drift or corner-flag route and unable to prevent the break developing down the left touchline.
The final example is even more simple and brutal.
There are three sets of eyes glued to Force number 8 Isi Naisarani when he takes the ball at forward first receiver – from inside to outside, David Lolohea, Michael Hooper and Angus Taavao. Any kind of ball movement across the front of the ‘shoot’ will expose the space on the edge, and so it proves.
A nice long pass from Naisirani off his left hand creates more space for Rona, and once again all Rob Horne and Nick Phipps can do is turn and head for the corner flag.
On the critical line-breaking phase that effectively won the game for Scotland against the Wallabies in the second game of the June series, the same tendencies were present:
Ned Hanigan presses up on the Scotland first receiver Finn Russell, Sekope Kepu sits and holds outside him, Tevita Kuridrani prepares to rush the (withdrawn) Scotland second receiver, Reece Hodge plays off and is looking to drift towards touch.
The mixture of ‘shoot and drift’ is an uncomfortable one – Hodge is in no position to cut off the play once the pass is successfully made beyond Kuridrani, and even when the Australian scramble defence (Hodge, fullback Haylett-Petty and scrumhalf Will Genia) arrives in the third frame, it is outnumbered by the Scotland support.
Scotland were able to exploit their advantage in numbers to score the decisive try of the game.
It is not just the structure of the Australian regional game which has been called into question by the new 18-team Super Rugby tournament. The entire tripartite format has been shaken by the proposed move of the two South African ‘reject’ franchises to the Guinness Pro 12.
If it happens, a northward shift for all of the South African provinces is likely to become a reality, sooner or later. Broadcast revenue for any remaining Trans-Tasman competition will then receive a searching reassessment because South Africa provided the biggest TV audience for Super Rugby.
In the meantime, the Western Force are doing all they can to stay alive as the fourth Australian franchise, and the support promised by billionaire Andrew Forrest will again snapshot the dilemma of private ownership. If the Force survives the axe, will the ARU be able to deny Forrest overall control of the region in a potentially more austere economic environment?
On the field, the Force gave their veteran captain Matt Hodgson a worthy send-off in the rain at the Perth Oval. They also put their finger on continuing weaknesses in the Nathan Grey defensive structure in their match against the Waratahs.
With the giant shadow of Andy Farrell’s superbly-drilled defence still hanging over the Southern Hemisphere after the end of the Lions’ tour, there are real concerns over the viability of Grey’s uneasy mix of rush and drift at both regional and Test level.
The prospect of two games against an angry All Black team in the first two rounds is probably not the test Grey would have picked at the beginning of the Rugby Championship.