This time 30 years ago, South Africans were getting ready to be included in Super 10. Having only the Currie Cup for so long, people looked forward to seeing their teams take on the best of the South Pacific.
For the South Pacific nations, this could have been a big risk, as money was small. But by 1996 money had got in the way of a great format that shrunk the southern hemisphere’s commercial market and sent hundreds of homeless players abroad for professional contacts.
The European cups are modelled on Super 10, and in 1995 France, Ireland, Wales, Italy and Romania sent their best to the European Rugby Champions Cup. But 1995 was the last time that both Europe and the south would be on the same page. SANZAR was created with a lot of money behind it, and it all became about money and not about developing professional rugby.
New Zealand and Australia reformed Super Rugby into their domestic league from 1995. By 1998 South Africa had no choice but to make Super 12 their domestic league. It was completely different to what had made Super 10 great and sadly left the non-Super Rugby teams dying in the shadows.
On the other side of the world, Europe had taken their version of Super 10 and made it to include a lot more clubs. It was the interleague format that was important to them. They wanted their domestic leagues. and this was the cherry on the cake.
Thirty years on and a different South Africa become the first and possibly only nation to take part in both Super 10 and the Champions Cup, and it was the tenth nation to be part of the European cups.
South Africa will have five teams taking part – four via their domestic league and one invited. In future years the Currie Cup’s best non-qualified team could take that fifth place.
Super Rugby, on the other hand, has gone from being probably better than the six nations to now fighting it out with Japan and Pro D2 in France as the fourth best league. The Champions Cup average attendance at its highest was just over 15,000, well below the 25,000-plus over Super 12, but it is made special by being an interleague tournament, something Super Rugby is unlikely to be again.
I will use Ireland as an example of how Australia, with much better players, could have had the same benefits. In 1995 both countries had strong domestic club scenes powered by lots of small historical clubs. Both nations entered regional teams made up of the best players of the clubs, and both realised the regional teams needed to be professional. Australia had only a sledgehammer in Super Rugby, while Ireland had the URC and European cups that proved to be more supportive in developing weaker areas.
Munster are like the Brumbies, and their journey starts in the 1998-99 season of the Champions Cup after having a poor season up till then. Ulster won the Champions Cup and Munster made the quarter-final. Ireland had been terrible at Test level, so this win was a big surprise. That year Munster’s group attendances were 1500, 2000 and 4000. Little did people know that the red army and Thomond Park would become feared around Europe.
In 1999-2000 in their three group games they had 6500, 8000 and 10,000 people in attendance, three times the previous year’s total. Then 13,400 people showed up for the quarterfinal win, leaving them with an away game against the biggest team in Europe.
I remember the match, when people like me fell in love with rugby. Young players who would go on to be seen as generational talents, took the field, with a young Ronan O’Gara helping take them to the final. Sadly O’Gara was not the player he became and missed kicks, but the fans poured in all the same.
It was this team that powered the rise of Ireland in the 2000s. In May 2006 people cried as they finally landed the holy grail, making up most of the 74,534 fans that attended the final.
The Brumbies were given a place in Super Rugby 12 and were never going to lose it. The fans did not get the away days of Super 10, and if they didn’t attend, there was always next year. It’s hard to go on a journey when the road is clearly laid out. Until the play-offs, Super Rugby struggled to be important, and more started just watching the play-offs with few giant kills.
With the Champions Cup, the groups were important and fans could forget about a bad season for a few weeks.
Connacht entered European rugby thanks to the Challenge Cup being created in 1996. They went on runs here and there but the prize for them was Champions Cup qualification. They entered the competition in the 2011-12 season, having shown their worth for years in their domestic league. But for the ten years of waiting, they were a functioning team. They sold more season tickets than their average attendance for the previous seasons. If they failed, they still would exist.
For many European teams the Challenge Cup is the pathway to improving their domestic form, as they improve weaknesses other styles expose and experience high-pressure games. Toulon, Connacht, Montpellier and others have used it to win their leagues. Lyon won it last year and it was their first major trophy, which is also important. The Force and Rebels were given none of that development before being thrown to the sharks in Super Rugby.
They didn’t get to play NPC or Currie Cup teams in Super Rugby. They were expected to go from zero to 100 in a season. A team like Connacht had over ten years of Challenge Cup and domestic games, which allowed them to improve their feeder clubs and discover who they were. When they entered the Champions Cup, it was with squad that had been together rather than just assembled.
Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy created their own league to provide teams with games to prepare for European rugby. I am sure that Rugby Australia and the Pacific Islands would have formed a domestic league with three Pacific Island teams and five Australian sides to form an eight-team league. It was not cheap, but it forced the unions to make hard calls, something Australia still has to fully do. Rugby Australia could have funded two development teams and built them up over time, much like Connacht.
Both Super Rugby and European rugby had a civil war over teams and money. Europe’s fight was over whether the URC should be treated as a league or whether the unions should still get teams based on the 2000 agreement when the URC did not exist. The result was that fewer teams from the URC went into the Challenge Cup but could still exist as professional outfits. Super Rugby’s battle was about which teams were going to have to give up professionalism.
I don’t know if part of the Super 12 money was that it had to be the top league, but based on South Africa in the first two years, it would appear not. With only 12 professional teams in Super Rugby compared to the at least 20 teams that fed into Super 10 via domestic leagues, a lot of teams had to give up professionalism or move to Europe, which had about 40 teams in its two cups.
Maybe it was this hurt that South Africa and Australia had gone through, which New Zealand doesn’t understand, that made their reaction to the leak of the Aratipu report so hard to understand. They saw no issue with looking at cutting more teams as they tried to streamline Super Rugby even more. At least this time Rugby Australia and South Africa refused to be the willing participants they had been a few years earlier.
We have gone back nearly 30 years with South Africa again sending their top league teams into the best club competition in the world. On the other side of the Indian Ocean they have gone back to a bigger version of the Super Six. It could have been so different if all that Super 12 money had helped turn the Currie Cup and NPC into the southern version of the Premiership and Top 14, with Australia heading a southern URC.
Maybe the world club championship makes Super Rugby Pacific turn things around – or will Japan take half their spots?