Nearly two months ago, when Andrew Forrest made his grand on-field entry into the biggest and worst-handled saga to have plagued Australian rugby since professionalism, I wrote in this very column that SANZAAR and the Super Rugby competition were at the crossroads.
The ARU was still battling with which team it could or couldn’t cut, and South Africa were on the verge of playing their long-threatened and oft-hinted card, which ultimately saw the Cheetahs and Kings make their northern hemisphere debut in the now PRO14 competition a fortnight ago.
At the time, there were strong whispers the Sharks might join them, and the Lions and Bulls have been mentioned at different points subsequently, too.
It was becoming increasingly obvious that SANZAAR’s grip on professional provincial rugby in the southern hemisphere, and Super Rugby as the vehicle that drives that, was being heavily eroded.
“As an organisation, SANZAAR needs to give serious consideration as to how Super Rugby looks going forward,” I wrote.
“That was always going to happen heading into negotiations for the broadcast deals from 2021 and beyond, but the Super Rugby landscape is changing so rapidly right now, that those discussions can’t wait that long. If two South African teams are already leaving and a third is giving it serious consideration, how confident can we be that the competition will still have a South African presence come the 2020 season playoffs?”
Quite incredibly, the response from SANZAAR since that time has been silence. Eardrum bursting, mind blowing, jaw-droppingly frustrating silence.
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Not even the confirmation that the competition has now achieved its stated goal of a 15-team competition for 2018 has drawn a response. No ‘best of luck in the north’ to the Cheetahs and Kings, no ‘thanks for your valued contribution’ to the Force. Not a single word.
It’s as incredible as it is dumbfounding.
Meanwhile, the latest development on Forrest’s IndoPac competition front is that the Western Australian billionaire and ARU officials, including chairman Cameron Clyne, met over the weekend, with Wayne Smith in The Australian reporting that a “clear intention that the interests of Australian rugby can be best served by the two parties working together” now exists. This is good news.
The IndoPac plans as announced last week, let’s be honest, has hairs all over it. The devil is in the detail, as the saying goes, but currently, the detail is more than a bit scant.
However, if that planning is now heading toward an IndoPac flavour to an expanded National Rugby Championship, as is being reported, then now we’re actually looking in a direction that is starting to make sense.
And following on from my point late last week, if World Rugby regional development funding can be secured for the Asian and Pacific region involvement – as secured the Fijian Drua’s NRC inclusion – then all the better.
Finally, some serious thought is being given about what direction the game in this part of the world will take.
SANZAAR need to be similarly proactive, and if they won’t take the initiative, then Australia and New Zealand need to force their hand and seek a resolution and vision for the future sooner rather than later.
None of the questions from two months ago have been answered, but the urgency to do so is increasing. And furthermore, the list of questions is growing.
Is Super Rugby in its current form nearing its natural end of life?
Will more South African sides drop out of Super Rugby before the end of this current (new) broadcast deal? Could the Western Force be rapidly reassembled to fill any suck gap?
Does South Africa want to remain in Super Rugby? Why have South African teams now contacted Forrest about his IndoPac competition?
(And on that, how much bigger can the IndoPac footprint become before all the same timezone and disconnection issues that have plagued Super Rugby transfer across?)
How do the broadcasters want the competition to look from 2021?
Will ten teams either side of the Tasman become the foundation for a stream-lined IndoPac-Super Rugby competition?
Does SANZAAR even know what it wants?!?
It’s clear the Australian Rugby Union and New Zealand Rugby must take the lead, because they are the countries with the most to lose from a dissolution of Super Rugby.
Will the NRC in Australia and the NPC in New Zealand be enough to satisfy the provincial rugby appetite locally if Super Rugby falls over? I’m not sure it will.
A franchise competition sitting above the local game will still be required, and what’s more, that is more likely to bring in the sort of traditional and digital broadcast revenue required to keep the best players in this part of the world.
The only thing certain in all this is that the longer SANZAAR sits on its hands and does nothing, the further Super Rugby will sink and significantly more likely leading players will be lost to Europe and Japan.
The silence cannot continue. It’s only the future of the professional game in the south waiting for answers.