Here we go again, and this time it’s with feeling.
Reports of South African rugby’s ambitions to align its professional programs away from hemispherical latitude lines and toward longitudinal timezone lines are not new. Indeed, they’ve done the rounds in some shape or form the last few broadcast deal negotiations.
This time around seems to have more oomph about it, though. This time, the talk has a new element to it.
But what’s curious this time around is that Australia are the lone segment of the SANZAAR partnership not to have already announced what its portion of the broadcast deal for 2021 and beyond looks like. Indeed, Rugby Australia is yet to run what for a change looks like will be a competitive process.
How that plays out remains to be seen, and will undoubtedly be discussed in great length going forward. Just not in this column today.
No, today is about a much bigger elephant in a much bigger room. This elephant has a South African accent and has again got a taste for greener, more lucrative, northern pastures.
Reports out of the UK over the weekend delivered a pretty significant bombshell.
“South Africa to join Six Nations,” the Daily Mail’s back page screamed on Saturday morning.
Previously, the rumours and reports and even the reality a few years ago were all centred around South African franchises leaving Super Rugby and playing in the north, as the Cheetahs and Southern Kings did when they joined the then Pro12 competition.
The Sharks, Bulls, and Lions have all been mentioned at different points over the ensuing years to be considering their options around following suit.
The Springboks themselves, South Africa’s national rugby side, have even been seen as a suitable fit if the Home Unions ever looked to expand the Six Nations. And by suitable, I of course mean valuable, in that they would bring significantly more money to the table than, say, Georgia would. But never before has this kind of discussion reached this level of reporting.
Now, on this, while I take Geoff Parkes’ point that the Daily Mail hasn’t necessarily been seen as the hallmark of truth in journalism in the UK – and the less said about their Australian arm, the better – their sports reporting has generally been pretty reasonable.
Chris Foy and Matt Hughes, the authors of this bombshell exclusive, are well-established rugby and sports journalists.
Whatever your take on the Daily Mail, this is still a story that any reporter worth their salt would want to write. And it’s had an impact already.
New Zealand Rugby CEO Mark Robinson wasted no time in reminding all and sundry that the new broadcast arrangements announced by his SARU counterparts contract the nation to the Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship tournaments until the end of the 2025 season, which would certainly be a reasonably large legal stumbling block to the Springboks joining what was reported would become the Seven Nations in 2024.
There might be an argument that Springboks could play in the Seven Nations while South African sides still played Super Rugby, though you would also like to think that the SANZAAR arrangements compel each nation to ensure the Super Rugby sides are not deprived of international players unless injured. That said, that’s an arrangement New Zealand haven’t exactly followed themselves in recent years.
Other reports have made mention of SARU’s oft-repeated reiterations of being committed to the SANZAAR partnership through to 2030. But I’ll just repeat the same thing I’ve said every time this comes up: South Africa can remain committed to the SANZAAR partnership and still pull out of Super Rugby.
“I think this is the third team now in the past month that there’s been reports out of the northern hemisphere that are going to join the Six Nations,” Robinson said in an interview with Radio Sport in New Zealand on the weekend. “By my count they are up to nine nations at some time in the next few years, which we all know is simply not feasible.”
This point of feasibility was what England coach Eddie Jones latched onto as well, while not missing the chance for a not-so-subtle dig at his former employers.
“[The Six Nations is] called the greatest rugby tournament in the world and I think it is. So why would you want to add other teams that are going to decrease the level of competition,” Jones said after his side’s 13-6 win over Scotland.
“I can only talk from experience. Super Rugby was the golden egg of rugby – brilliant, 12 teams, competitive. As soon as it had gone to 14 and 15, it lost its allure.”
But regardless of all the commentary, this is where New Zealand, Australia and Argentina as equal partners in the four-nation southern hemisphere set-up are now entitled to demand answers of South Africa.
How can South Africa guarantee it will fulfil its contracted arrangements through to the end of the 2025 season?
What are South Africa’s intentions for participation in SANZAAR tournaments through to end of the current and already-announced future broadcast deals, and beyond?
How many South African sides will be playing Super Rugby in 2021, in all seasons through to 2025, and beyond?
Why shouldn’t the remaining SANZAAR partners immediately begin looking at alternate formats and options (and participant nations) that don’t involve South Africa?
Even with new contractual arrangements in place in New Zealand and Argentina, and despite Australia’s still to be confirmed, these are questions that require urgent answers.
But they are questions that have required answers for years. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve written “It’s only the future of the professional game in the south waiting for answers,” or words to this effect.
Curiously, SARU remain silent on this. They’re not seeking to deny the reports, nor have they chosen to reiterate their commitment to the SANZAAR partnership for the umpteenth time.
It’s worth remembering, the last time the SARU said nothing about reports like this, two of their teams joined a northern hemisphere competition within weeks.
The NZAAR parts of the partnership are entitled to know if that’s about to happen again.