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SANZAAR is at a crossroads that is far more complex than being down to money, travel, or that Australia is disillusioned with Super Rugby.
South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina are all in danger, due to a player exodus that has no end in sight. We are foolish to believe we can compete financially with Europe via expansion into Chinese, Japanese or American markets.
Meanwhile, the absolute dominance New Zealand currently has is not healthy for Super Rugby nor The Rugby Championship and is creating disillusionment among non-Kiwi supporters.
I am not blaming New Zealand rugby for this, as, obviously, each country has its own issues in regarding development.
In South Africa, Australia and Argentina, players develop mostly despite the systems in place, so each nation produces enough quality players to compete at the highest international level on a consistent basis. But if you take away enough of these players, you remove the nation’s ability to compete, because the next level of players is not good enough.
Consider the current talent lost by South Africa in Europe. You might be able to put together three Super Rugby franchises, and they would likely end in the top-four positions in a conference containing the then-eight South African franchises.
Add to that the intellectual property lost, the experience lost, and you see why the lack of development is at fault.
New Zealand is much less affected by the talent drain simply because their development system is leaps and bounds ahead.
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The truth of the matter is there is no short-term solution to this problem. The challenge lies in firstly recognising where the frustrations and disillusions stem from, which comes down to a lack of domestic investment, lack of structures, poor administration, lack of development of coaches and players, and ultimately an amateur approach to a professional industry.
If South Africa, Australia and Argentina were able to compete with New Zealand, we might not ever have come to the crossroads – we might have had higher television revenue, higher spectator numbers and be none the wiser.
But we don’t, and thus we need to find solutions.
South Africa seems to have found an alternative to SANZAAR, but is Europe seen as a permanent solution or an additional option for generating revenue and thus retaining players?
The fact is the horse has bolted, there are two South African teams in Europe, we can therefore accept more will follow. What we don’t know is how many. Nor the level they plan to compete at.
The European Champions Cup is the continent’s highest level, and so far there has been no discussion that we know of that South African teams can qualify for it. You do however have to think logic suggests if a South African team does win the Pro14 in the future, ECC qualification would follow.
After the involvement of the Cheetahs and Kings in the Pro14 became public, Jurie Roux discussed the potential of four teams in Europe and four teams in Super Rugby. He also said that Super 12 was probably the best version of Super Rugby, as 12 teams had integrity, the best teams rose to the top, no finals berths were guaranteed, and luck had little to do with play-off positions.
Perhaps Super 12 or Super 14 is the future once again, if SANZAAR forgets about their grandiose expansion plans.
The concern though is if four South African teams play in Europe, there will be a short-term sacrifice on the quality of players, for SA rugby to recover from the exodus of the past number of years they will need time to generate enough talent for eight professional teams.
The other concern is what happens to the Pro 14 once it adds two more South African teams? I am not a fan of conferences, pools or any other split group competitions, and will always prefer a one-pool, round-robin competition where everyone plays everyone else. That is the foundation of any competition with integrity.
France has a Top 14 with double round-robin that fills their calendar to the brim, which suggests 14 teams is the maximum you can realistically have.
The thinking that Italy might lose their two teams with the addition of South African teams is unrealistic, as Italy is a country with nearly 60 million people and even though rugby is not their most popular sport, their economy cannot be ignored.
So while it is smart of SARU to consider Europe as an additional option, I do not see how it can be the only option, as their seasons and competitions are full as is.
I do not see Australian rugby prospering on its own, simply since rugby union is not popular enough to generate the type of revenue AFL, league or cricket does. They need outside markets to generate revenue as well.
And even though New Zealand is the envy of the rugby world, I do not see them prospering on their own either.
South Africa, Australia and New Zealand might be reluctant partners, but they are partners nonetheless. Perhaps they need to fully embrace the fact that Argentina is part of the alliance, and together redirect their ambitions for Super Rugby into a more compact, shorter, higher-quality competition.
This would leave all the nations enough time in the calendar to truly and successfully develop domestic, grassroots rugby.
After all, if you cannot retain your top 150 players, try then to retain the top 90 at least.