In 2015 Los Jaguares were the first professional Argentinian club team to join Super Rugby.
In their four short years they experienced a meteoric rise from 13th in their inaugural season to runners-up in their last. They were popular among fans and were welcomed by all.
In 2020 the fans could only watch as COVID-19 hammered the final nail into the Super Rugby coffin. Los Jaguares, lost and without an invite from the other SANZAAR nations, found themselves playing in the Super Liga Americana de Rugby (SLAR), replacing the Ceibos from Cordoba.
The South American competition ensures Los Jaguares are no longer the sole professional team on the continent. Los Jaguares now find themselves competing with the Cafeteros Pros from Colombia, the Cobras from Brazil, Olimpia Lions from Paraguay, Penarol in Uruguay and Selknam from Chile. The competition is the child of Sudamerica Rugby, which is hoping to expand and grow the game while giving the athletes a chance to become professionals in their home countries.
It’s an exciting time for rugby. Across the planet professional club teams are appearing. Growth seems inevitable. In a few short years we have seen the creation of SLAR, the expansion of Major League Rugby, the new Pacific involvement in Super Rugby and Japan’s restructuring away from corporate ownership in the Top League. There are even whispers of the Major League teams playing the SLAR teams to see who would be the champions of the Americas.
It seems rugby is growing. No longer is rugby enjoyed by only the historic powers of the northern and southern hemispheres.
While growth is exciting, it can also be dangerous if not done carefully. Expand too quickly and limited funds are stretched too thin to be sustained. Expand to the wrong area and a support base can’t be built, which will further drain funds from the competition to keep a sinking team afloat.
Already the Super Liga is discussing expansion in their second season or when the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, with Spain, Portugal or Mexico being mentioned as candidates. More sensibly there have also been rumours circulating about a second Chilean, Uruguayan or Brazilian franchise. While this raises an eyebrow and some interest in the league, it would be wise for SLAR to learn some hard lessons from Los Jaguares and the fall of Super Rugby.
The first lesson SLAR should learn from Super Rugby is to not be spread thin. Too many teams across too many continents make for a competition too hard to follow week-in-week-out. For their own best interest the South Americans need to stay local and forget about the possibility of Spanish, Portuguese or Mexican franchises. Adding that trio would see nine teams in nine countries. The costs associated with and the impact on player welfare of flying across time zones would only strain the league. This does not mean that SLAR should forget them entirely, but rather it should use these countries to find talent for its own teams.
The second lesson is to be wary of a conference system. In its heyday Super Rugby followed a round robin format, but as it grew there needed to be a restructuring. There couldn’t be too many games due to the international calendar and there couldn’t be too few as broadcasters need games to make money. A four-conference system was introduced at Super Rugby’s peak of 18 teams. The complexity of figuring out which conference played which and who played who was a nightmare for fans to follow, creating disinterest in the competition.
Moreover, conferences allowed for some teams to have an easier draw of games. In 2017 the Lions won 14 of 15 games without playing any teams from New Zealand until the semi-finals. For the sake of the fans, keep it simple, keep it double-round robin and steer clear of the conference system.
The third lesson Super Rugby can teach SLAR is to start in the rugby heartlands. The first Super Rugby teams were based where rugby was the strongest in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. If SLAR wants to increase the size of their league, then place the teams where the fans and academies are.
So where would be the best place to start expansion for the South Americans? Argentina is most obvious. After all, Los Pumas have been the envy of their neighbours for decades. Compared to the rest of the continent Argentina is a big fish in a small pond. There is no shortage of players either. The majority of the other teams have a good cluster of Argentineans to support their ranks. Despite the Olimpia Lions being based in Asuncion, Paraguay, the majority of players are Argentinian.
Due to Los Pumas success internationally, the majority of fans would also be based in Argentina. Already Los Jaguares are dominant in the competition and most likely to take home the trophy. A team in Cordoba, Rosario and Tucuman would be only beneficial and help to create some local derbies that would keep fans excited. A second team based in Buenos Aires would get the hot-blooded passion of South American fans pumping.
Look at the Primera Division of football, where there are multiple Buenos Aires teams. Often these games are the most hotly contested and watched on TV. The Superclasico between Boca Juniors and River Plate is renowned in the football world as a must-watch match every year. Imagine if the Jaguares had a local rival to battle each year. There is no shortage of talent in Buenos Aires either. Eight of the 16 teams that participate in the Nacional de Clubes, the national club competition, stem from the Buenos Aires area.
Excluding the Argentine superpower, where else should get an expansion team? For now there are only two other sensible choices.
Uruguay is the only other nation in South America that has also played at the Rugby World Cup. While Los Teros can only brag about winning three out of 15 World Cup games, a second Uruguayan team would help them to increase their developed player pool and help them to be more competitive. After all, most developed rugby nations have at least two professional clubs; Uruguay should be the same. However, this seems likely as Uruguay were touted as having two teams at SLAR’s creation.
Brazil could also have potential as a location for more teams. Brazil was originally supposed to have a second team based from Florianopolis before sensibly deciding it would be best to start with one team. The Maori All Blacks took on the Tupis in 2018 and have been competitive against teams like the USA and Canada. Not to mention that there is a market of 211 million people waiting to discover rugby in the football-mad country.
Expansion for the young league will inevitably happen, especially when there is an aim to grow rugby across the continent. For now we can only sit back, watch and hope that the Super Liga doesn’t follow the same footsteps as Super Rugby. After all, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.