When the South African Rugby Union voted to send their strongest franchise sides to a competition other than Super Rugby, that in itself wasn’t the story. The story was there was little to suggest this shift to Europe was anything but a permanent move.
With COVID-19 infections rising and the global death toll just rising past one million, expecting Super Rugby to revert to normality in 2021 would have been absurd. With all the international travel and the varying quarantine requirements of its participants, there was no real chance of the competition as we knew it resuming in a pandemic-affected world.
Even so, there were general ideas floating around about a tournament with teams from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina eventually recommencing. That ship now looks to have not so much sailed as sunk before it’s left the harbour.
Not that it’s particularly surprising. When New Zealand Rugby announced their proposed plan for future provincial rugby, they talked of “establishing a new professional team competition in 2021” – hardly something you’d do as a one-off – while Rugby Australia were cagier, publicly talking of “Super Rugby level for 2021” with scant detail on what lay beyond.
Even take COVID and the flaming dumpster that is 2020 in general out of the equation, and the ‘South Africa to Europe’ narrative is nothing new. There have been ample hints that SARU could be aligning themselves northwards (the painfully obvious one being the Cheetahs and Lions turning Pro12 into Pro14), it’s just taken a catastrophic global pandemic to turn those hints into something concrete.
Because it’s not surprising doesn’t mean it’s not a shame, though. The most obvious loser from the development is Argentinian rugby, which is now thoroughly isolated in the world of top-level franchise play.
There has been bitter disappointment among hardened rugby fans, too. The unique quirks brought about by having its competitors split across continents helped make Super Rugby a compelling tournament – discussions about how teams could and would deal with their tours to South Africa and visits to Argentina for one were interesting, welcome points of difference.
The mix of contrasting gameplans from country to country also made for fascinating and often entertaining rugby, all the while exposing players to different styles of play before hitting the Test arena. That was no bad thing.
Even so, in much the same way that pushing the Stormers, Bulls, Sharks and Lions into what would become the Pro16 makes sense for SARU, it’s far from the worst news for Australia. The time difference between the two countries makes for horrid broadcast slots whenever games are hosted in South Africa, but with that now off the table, whatever version of Super Rugby we’re left with now surely becomes a more attractive proposition for broadcasters here.
It will naturally change things from a SANZAAR broadcast perspective, but it’s worth keeping firmly in mind that the value of those deals leans far more heavily on the Rugby Championship than Super Rugby. Because of that, and with SARU saying they “remain part of the joint venture”, the four nations will likely remain wedded where Test matches are concerned even after Wednesday’s divorce.
That announcement also brings into focus the deteriorating relationship between Rugby AU and NZR, who’ve been engaged in recent months in a contest to see who can piss furthest across the Tasman.
The latest round has been particularly unedifying, New Zealand adamant that the SANZAAR schedule for the Rugby Championship is somehow Australia’s fault, despite Rugby AU chairman Hamish McLennan and leaked minutes of a SANZAAR CEOs meeting – which have been labelled as false by NZR – insisting otherwise.
Let’s put aside the bickering about who’s at fault for a moment. It’s clear the he-said, she-said posturing benefits no one either side of the ditch. It certainly won’t help create any kind of trans-Tasman provincial competition in the coming years, which the pandemic would have made a delicate act even with a strong relationship between the two governing bodies.
McLennan struck a far more conciliatory tone than his NZR counterparts on Tuesday night on Sky New Zealand’s The Breakdown. While admitting the partnership between the two rugby nations is “at probably the lowest ebb it’s ever been”, the chairman managed to find a balance between offering forthright answers, sticking up for Australian rugby, and not playing the role of antagoniser – as well as throwing in an “I like all Kiwis actually … you guys are such a great rugby nation” for good measure.
If we really have seen the last of South Africa entering their best domestic sides in a fully-fledged iteration of Super Rugby, New Zealand and Australia need to recognise they are stronger when they work together. This applies on the field – where it stands that two countries’ player pools will make for a larger, more competitive and varied competition – as well as off it – where the commercial pulling power of two unions offers more stability than that of one.
One notable aspect of McLennan’s Breakdown appearance on Tuesday – which left his Kiwi hosts suitably impressed – was his intention of repairing the relationship. It might seem too obvious a point to draw attention to, but it’s more constructive than the language lobbed back in Rugby AU’s direction.
And while we can assume that the two nations will come back to the boardroom to work together out of sheer necessity more than anything else, that process has to begin somewhere. A declaration of intent to repair the relationship isn’t the worst starting point.
It’s a daunting task, but things improved after they were downright dire following the fractious 2003 World Cup hosting negotiations. They can improve again this time. (As an aside, what is it about fixturing that brings out the worst in this partnership?)
After outlining that Rugby AU took offence to how they were “instructed” to cut two or three teams for NZR’s proposed Trans-Tasman competition, McLennan said, “We’re prepared to accept that that’s all water under the bridge, but we’ve got to get focused on building a new competition for next year and beyond”.
That’s an approach that, for the good of rugby, ought to be embraced by everyone either side of the Tasman.