South Africa’s intention to join the European pro rugby competition is a gift to the Australian and New Zealand rugby unions. The two trans-Tasman partners of SANZAAR have been given a golden opportunity to re-envision, reshape and rebuild professional trans-Tasman rugby.
Now is the time to embrace a brave new rugby world – a world of strong domestic competitions with international flair.
If rugby’s 2020 is to have a silver lining, it is the success of the Super Rugby ‘domestic’ spin-offs – Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU. The domestic derby format has seen a marvellous refocus on the traditional rivalries between provinces on both island nations. The two trans-Tasman unions must build on these successful resurgences of provincial rivalries.
As both unions have annually posted financial losses, surely developing separate domestic competitions would afford them some financial reprieve from the previous jet-setting schedule. It is also worth considering that the inconvenient time zone location of South African games is not an ideal broadcasting selling point.
The scheduling of ‘double-headers’ each weekend has been an absolute joy for the rugby audience. Rugby fans have been able to enjoy watching a game played in New Zealand before then flowing straight into viewing the Australian-based game. It’s as if the two-hour time zone difference between the islands was geologically formed to foster such a rugby schedule.
Both competitions on either side of the Tasman Sea have had their own unique strengths.
Watching incumbent and hopeful All Blacks go head to head each week during Super Rugby Aotearoa has made for absolutely stellar viewing. Then, as a post-season treat, like dessert after a fine dinner, we were privileged to see the return of the North Island vs South Island match in New Zealand, bringing with it a wave of nostalgic joy.
Rugby is a game that loves its traditions, so why not cap off the New Zealand domestic Super Rugby season with a return to this one? If scheduling and commitments allow, it could even turn into a series, as some prominent All Blacks players have suggested.
Meanwhile, over in Australia the forced return to regional stadiums – Newcastle and the Gold Coast – has allowed Rugby AU to reconnect with a proud yet long-forgotten fan-base that lives beyond the city limits. The success of the Queensland Reds ‘Reds to Regions’ program before the 2020 preseason, followed by their preseason matches hosted in country towns, is worth the consideration of Rugby AU to envision a rugby landscape inclusive of their regional and rural fan-base.
Rugby AU should consider how a city vs country exhibition match or series played at regional stadiums could capture the hearts and imaginations of their untapped and proud regional fan-base.
Rugby AU and New Zealand Rugby Union must capitalize and build on the strengths and successes of their 2020 domestic Super Rugby variations.
Rugby union is, however, an international game, and professional competitions must continue to reflect this special status of the game. The provincial sides in Australia and New Zealand still need their international tours to prepare players for the step up to international representation. Now is the time for the New Zealand Rugby Union and Rugby AU to reimagine how this can be achieved.
If the single-host format of 2020’s Rugby Championship is a success, then Rugby AU and New Zealand Rugby Union should consider such a format for provincial tours. The unions could annually alternate hosting their neighbour’s touring provincial sides, saving them some money on travel costs while still getting international exposure.
Such a format could even open up the opportunity for a combined Pacific Island team or even a representative side from Japan’s Top League – maybe as the rebirth of the Sunwolves?
However Rugby AU and New Zealand Rugby Union choose to proceed, they must look upon the horizon with optimism. The sun has set on South Africa’s time in Super Rugby. The days of heading west past the Indian Ocean are over. South Africa’s involvement is not financially viable from either a travel or a broadcasting perspective.
What the trans-Tasman rugby world will look like now is anyone’s guess, but cousins Rugby AU and New Zealand Rugby Union have been gifted a golden opportunity to create something that works for their unions, their players and their fan-bases.
Let’s hope this opportunity is not squandered.