The virus has dealt a massive financial hit to the whole rugby world and seems to have put an end to Super Rugby as we knew it.
But out of destruction comes opportunity, because when something is destroyed you can build something much better in its place.
One heartening development in the present crisis was the willingness of rugby unions in both hemispheres to work together to help each other become more sustainable. Unfortunately the French and English leagues, dominated by clubs owned by billionaires, are doing everything they can to reduce the scope for a more lucrative structure to the international season, or even the emergency international window at the end of the year.
But for club rugby, the rest of the world can work on something without them.
In today’s article I will describe a massive opportunity for the rest of the rugby world to utilise this spirit of co-operation by developing the greatest club rugby competition ever known. As I just said, we don’t even need the involvement of the billionaire boys’ clubs, although we might let them join – at a price. Individually we have less money than them, but if we work together we can build something that makes their insular competitions look dull, overlong and insipid.
First, a recap. In Part 1 I set out why:
1. Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU have been roaring success stories, as well as the potential success of something similar in South Africa.
2. A standalone five-plus-five Trans Tasman competition would be the wrong length and have the same key weakness as post Super 12 rugby. Trans-Tasman matches tend to be less interesting to fans and much of the excitement built up this winter would be lost.
3. Most of the club season should be spent in separate national competitions, possibly with more byes and an extra Pasifika team. This would lock in the benefits of 2020.
4. In 2021 we should then have a cross-over competition, also involving either South Africa or Japan if agreement can be reached. This would involve five or six teams from each country, playing in tiered competitions (one comp each in two or three countries to minimise travel and quarantine). Each team can also earn Ryder Cup-style points for their country.
Since Part 1 was published it’s been great to see Rugby Australia come over to my way of thinking with its proposal for Super Rugby AU followed by a cross-over comp. Similarly it’s been reported that NZ rugby are also considering this. I’d love to take credit for these developments but modesty prevents me.
The other thing I want to say is how good has Super Rugby Aotearoa been? And how successful in terms of fan numbers at the ground and on TV. We must keep it if at all possible, though without so many consecutive derbies. And Super Rugby AU is such an even competition and wonderful place for the excellent crop of kids to develop in. Thank goodness the Australian proposal moves to keep them.
Eight won’t be super. Although I am massively underwhelmed by the Super Eight/State of Origin part of the Australian proposal, we need to remember that it is only a first stab and may well be changed in future. However I will analyse the current plan, which has serious flaws that my 2021 transition and 2022 ongoing plans don’t have. I will then present the second half of my plan as a far superior alternative.
1. In the RA plan you have five squads of professional players for eight matches, two squads for the State of Origin knock off, and two for the S8. That means you have the inefficiency of paying about half your pro players to play in the first short part of the season only, and you have less money and rugby to offer them at contract negotiation time. That also applies to the South Africa and New Zealand unions who you want in the S8.
Why on earth wouldn’t you want to find a way to keep them involved in quality professional rugby for the overseas cross-over? Some of the guys not qualifying for State of Origin and/or playing in the S8 will be well paid first XV Wallabies who need to be playing a decent level of rugby. And why not have more content for broadcasters, and more matches for fans to attend?
2. The 2021 season will be a unique year because of the Lions tour and likely quarantine restrictions due to COVID. South Africa want to be back home by July, which leaves an impossibly small window if you want to involve Japanese clubs, considering that the Japanese league finishes in late May and you may need 14 days for quarantine. I will discuss this, and why a Sunwolves type team is unrealistic, later.
Also, what happens if South Africa decide that they want to keep open the option to head north, and they don’t want the same thing in 2021 as 2022?
There will be greater flexibility and as I will demonstrate later, massive opportunities from 2022 that can’t possibly get off the ground in 2021. It’s important that RA don’t cut off that potential, for example by splitting off the wrong broadcasting rights to a different party who will have no incentive to give something up for the greater good benefitting another broadcaster.
These are the reasons that in my plan I treat 2021 as a transitional year, probably only including Japan or South Africa.
3. Brinksmanship with New Zealand is one thing, but giving South Africa, Japan and Argentina three weeks to sign up for a four-year commitment, bearing in mind all the above, strikes me as counterproductive to say the least. If they have already agreed fair enough, but as I write this the silence from officials and journalists in the South African and Japanese media is deafening. I sincerely hope that it is RA’s intention to have conference calls with the relevant parties and decide between each other what a cross-over competition will look like.
The plan also precludes the proposed 12-team Nations Championship, which all the Rugby Championship and Six Nations unions are said to have wanted because of its massive attractiveness to broadcasters. That won’t be sorted in three weeks.
4. There’s no place for any Pasifika team in either the S8 or Rugby Championship for another four years.
Back to my plan. I discussed 2021 in Part 1. Now let’s look at a more permanent solution from 2022 onwards, with the same basic structure for Australia and New Zealand – Super Rugby AU/Aotearoa followed by a cross-over competition with whomever (if anyone) wants to join. So who might be interested? I will start small, in case the big plan doesn’t work out, or if we don’t want the big comp to take place every year. I’m thinking a cross-over comp featuring five or six teams each from New Zealand, Australia and Japan.
Recently JRFU director Yuichiro Fujii stressed the need for Japan’s top clubs to play against top southern hemisphere clubs if their national team is to improve. With the Top League to finish every May, he suggested a June/July comp, assuming that the July international window moves to October as proposed.
This would be a very different proposition compared to the Sunwolves, who were greatly weakened by the clubs’ refusal to release their best players. The clubs are fantastically wealthy, owned by some of the biggest companies in the world, and they can afford to buy the players to be competitive if necessary. Of course we don’t want them to be our players.
With the Japanese clubs cashed up and in a similar time zone, including Japan as a full partner has to be a good option. If anyone has any inside knowledge of whether the clubs are just as interested as the JRFU that would be much appreciated.
Contrast this proposal with the S8, which as I explained earlier would cut out the clubs in favour of one Sunwolves type team, at least in 2021. Why would the clubs suddenly start releasing top players during their season? Why turn your back on the real power brokers and purse string holders of Japanese rugby?
Even the JRFU want club, not Sunwolves, involvement. And internationally, RA’s proposed four-year deal is for a four-team Rugby Championship, leaving Japan out in the cold. What an opportunity missed to bring on as a full partner a cashed-up league in a similar time zone.
Our great rivals still haven’t decided whether or not they will be joining a northern hemisphere club competition. If not they can have a similar structure to us: Currie Cup followed by a cross-over comp. But even if they go to the Pro they can be involved in the Super Pro.
The Pro 14 countries
The Pro 14 is a totally different proposition to the French and English comps. Whereas the latter two comprise private clubs who prioritise their own club over the national team, the Pro clubs are owned by unions whose main concern is preparing and developing players for international rugby.
Following on from this, the English and French leagues are sacrosanct for their clubs, a long slog of a double round robin, leaving only room for internationals and the nine-week pan-European Heineken Cup between October and May. However the Pro 14 is low-key and flexible, going to a group format when the Kings and Cheetahs joined. It only has an average crowd of about 8000 and players are often rested to be fresh for the Heineken and Tests, which both enjoy far bigger crowds and interest.
Surely these unions and their broadcast partners would be all too happy to reduce its length if a more lucrative proposition was made, in this spirit of post-COVID co-operation.
In terms of wealth, the European Pro unions (Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy) are somewhere between Super Rugby and the private club leagues. They poach players from the southern hemisphere but they lose players to the private clubs, and were stretched financially even before COVID. So they need the money, but there is money to be made from playing them.
They are also challenging opponents on the pitch. The Irish teams in particular punch well above their weight in the Heineken, and Dublin-based Leinster is the top club team in Europe, undefeated in all competitions in 2019-20. Leinster and the Crusaders are a massive mutual admiration society, recently participating in a major sharing of ideas. They would love the chance to play each other.
Objectives of the Super Pro
1. Fill in the rest of the club season after Super Rugby AU/Aotearoa for one or two months.
2. Involve all or most of the Super rugby teams. They can’t be idle for that length of time.
3. Bring in a good income, more per game than the Pro at the very least.
4. Provide meaningful competition against teams playing different styles of rugby.
5. Maximum of one return long-haul journey per team.
6. An even number of teams in each group, for flexibility of byes.
The Heineken Cup final is in mid to late May, about when the Japanese Top League is to finish. If the Pro is timed to finish just before the Heineken, our domestic comps can also finish in May. The Pro unions might even choose to move to the global season even if the French and English don’t. With the July international window moving to October, this makes June and early to mid July the obvious time for the comp.
The Super Pro at its biggest could involve six teams each from six regions/countries – Ireland/Italy, Wales/Scotland, South Africa, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Apart from Australia and New Zealand, all of these already have at least six teams, and both of us have talked about adding teams. Should this not happen we could go to five teams each, or borrow a team from Japan, South Africa the US, the Pacific Islands or Argentina.
There will be six (or five) mini-comps. The top teams from each region would play each other, as would the second best teams. This will maximise the competitiveness of every match, and allow up to a 36-team round robin competition with final to take place in six to seven weeks, depending on whether there is a bye. The top competition might have Leinster, Scarlets, the Crusaders, the Brumbies, the Stormers and Wayne Smith’s Kobeco Steelers.
There are some very attractive and varied match-ups there, especially the much longed-for Crusaders versus Leinster tie, which would pack out any stadium. The second tier might include the Hurricanes, Rebels, Sharks, Munster, Glasgow and Robbie Deans’ Panasonic Wild Knights.
To make every match important even for the lower teams, national pride will be at stake because everyone will earn points for their country/region, Ryder Cup style. Nobody will want to let down their country.
To minimise travel, each region will host one of the mini comps in its entirety, like a mini World Cup. For TV scheduling if the top mini-league is held in an Atlantic region like Wales/Scotland, the second best will play in a Pacific country like Japan. Aussie and Japanese teams playing in an Atlantic country would want their teams playing early afternoon for say a 10pm screening to provide a double or triple header. The Kiwis would want an evening kick off for say an 8.30am screening.
Just like in the 2011 World Cup, a provincial town or city might bid to host a foreign team and its two home games. This would once again ensure a crowd and atmosphere even when a home country team is not playing.
The attractions of this competition would be many. From a sporting point of view you’re getting the top teams from all over the word to play each other and sort out inter-hemisphere bragging rights in a diverse clash of styles. There will be high quality, high stakes, high variety rugby every week and 12 to 18 matches a week depending on byes.
That has to be more attractive to broadcasters than the status quo and you are bringing in big new markets in Japan and Europe.
For the players you also get the chance to play all over the world and test yourself against different styles from all over the world. All that with often less travel than the old Super Rugby and a season slightly shorter than Super Rugby (ten domestic matches plus five in the Super Pro plus finals). This and the increased income for salaries has to make it easier to retain players and give them experience in different playing styles and tournament rugby. This will be vital come Test and World Cup time.
What an advantage over the English and French.