As the magnets continue to be shuffled around different whiteboards in different countries to work out if and how and when a resumption of professional rugby might be possible for this year, attention is also being cast forward to see if workable solutions for 2021 can also be found.
‘Ambitious’ is the word often used as a prefix for the phrase “plan for 2021” at the moment, mainly because when it comes to next season, the unknowns so overwhelmingly, excruciatingly outweigh the knowns.
There is currently more chance making cooked pasta stand rigid in a pot of boiling water than there is of knowing how 2021 will play out.
Every one of the SANZAAR partners is working on solutions for their part of the landscape, and though self-interest is generally bemoaned when it comes to rugby, self-interest is pretty much all anyone has at the moment.
It’s this ‘what can we actually do?’ thinking, coupled with a reasonably well-grounded assumption that international travel won’t be available for some time and will be cripplingly expensive when it does return, that fuels the inevitable discussion about resetting and reformatting Super Rugby.
The increasingly possible ‘trans-Tasman travel bubble’ concept makes competition between New Zealand and Australian teams all the more palatable.
Hence, the conversation goes off in that direction, and excitement builds or concerns grow accordingly.
Which then prompts statements like we saw from SANZAAR a fortnight ago, which amounted to “yeah, we know there’s plenty of talk, but we still have commitments for the next decade, so there…”
It’s hard to contemplate what these partnership commitments through to 2030 are even worth now, never mind how achievable or feasible they are. The broadcast deals already in place from next season will almost certainly have to be re-worked. Maybe even scrapped and done again.
And as funny as CEO Andy Marinos’ statement that, “all such reports (of alternate competitions) are merely speculative and have no basis to them” was, it’s worth noting the Sydney Morning Herald’s report last week of SANZAAR’s plan for separate domestic comps being played in 2021 in the three original partner countries.
The top two teams from each comp then coming together for an eight-team finals series, the report outlined, which would also include the top two teams from the Japanese Top League, which is set to be played at the same time next year.
Clearly, all reporting of such comps is speculative and has no basis. Unless it’s a SANZAAR idea.
But, to give the governing body some credit, at least this was a sign that some logical forward thinking has taken place. There’d been precious little evidence otherwise to that point last week.
So while on one hand, SANZAAR and the member unions are attempting to come to grips on whether the contracts they currently hold will be worth anything near what the number of the pages say, and whether they’ll have the ability to hold onto the players they so desperately need to create a viable rugby product going forward, on the other hand, those same players are making decisions themselves.
Worryingly, they’re not waiting around to find out what the future holds; they’re controlling their own future by looking after themselves.
The South African Rugby Union, in trying to find ways to urgently cut costs, gave players a three-week window within which they could cancel their current contracts with immediate effect. The window ended last Thursday, and it’s claimed some decent names.
Centre Johnny Kotze is on his way to Japan from the Bulls, outside back Dillyn Leyds is heading to France from the Stormers, Malcolm Marx is heading back to Japan from the Lions, and flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit’s future remains up in the air, with conflicting reports suggesting he has both opted out of his Stormers contract to take up a multi-million Euro contract in France *and* extended his stay at Newlands.
The Stormers and Lions both lost a number of players, though skipper Elton Jantjies won’t be one of them. The Sharks, too, came through the three weeks largely unscathed, managing to hold onto both Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi, with the latter reportedly knocking back huge offers from Japan.
Australia lost Kurtley Beale and Luke Jones to French deals this week as well, both rumoured from the start of the season. And reporting around their departure also seemed to indicate that Rebels lock Matt Philip will follow them to France.
Equally worrying is yesterday’s developments in Queensland, where Reds trio Harry Hockings, Isaac Lucas, and Wallabies lock Izack Rodda where told not to bother coming to training after their manager advised the Queensland Rugby Union that they were unwilling to accept a reduction in pay, despite the recently negotiated player-payment reduction agreement in conjunction with the Rugby Union Players Association.
All three are said to be ‘exploring their options’, which quite probably involve deals overseas. The three are managed by the same RUPA-accredited agent who oversaw Samu Kerevi’s defection to Japan. It’s a hell of a ballsy move when every one of your 190 colleagues have accepted their part and got on with the job of getting ready to play again.
The irony in all this would seem to be the continued strengthening of the Top League in Japan with the recruitment of yet more foreign players, coming at the same time they may or may not be having discussions about linking up for a Super Rugby finals series, which would put them up against the very teams they’ve been plundering for several seasons.
Quite how SANZAAR as a governing body manages all this is anyone’s guess.
Just as they and their member unions try to reshape a competition that will ensure the best players in our parts of the world want to continue playing at home, the players themselves are making decisions early.
And it seems the foreign devil you know looks way better than the unknown local devil you don’t.