Super Rugby is at a crossroads. The decision of World Rugby to introduce a global season was the catalyst. Until then the status quo was king in Super Rugby, but this week’s decision to trim three teams from the bloated competition means that everything is up for discussion.
It might have seemed to Sanzaar (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina Rugby) that the announcement was the end, but it turned out to be the beginning. The South African Rugby Union (Saru) has already deferred until June the decision about which two teams it will cut.
The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) was naive enough to think it could decide which of its five teams would walk the plank by the end of this week. Then the lawyers got involved.
On Monday, the ARU was served with a writ by the Western Australian Rugby Union, the parent body of the Perth-based Force. Similar legal action is contemplated by the Melbourne-based Rebels, the team next in the firing line. The complicating factor with the Rebels is that the franchise is privately owned, and Andrew Cox, the owner, is not about to let the ARU renege on a host of promises.
It might be worth noting that Saru opened the door to private ownership of provincial rugby unions earlier this year, and that Johan Rupert is in the process of acquiring 75% of Western Province. But the potential pitfalls of private ownership lie in the future. In the here and now, culling decisions need to be made.
The problems of the ARU do not exist in a vacuum and once Saru decides which two teams to cut, the writs will fly. There is an obvious solution and that is to amalgamate franchises. The problem with the solution is that, at least in this country, it has already been tried, tested and failed.
When the Super 12 ushered in the professional era in 1996, South Africa had four representatives that qualified through the Currie Cup log table. In 1997, Western Province failed to qualify, a scenario so appalling that it led indirectly to the franchise system being born.
The presidents of Transvaal and Northern Transvaal — Louis Luyt and Hentie Serfontein — could not even agree to talks about talks, and so Gauteng got two franchises. This disenfranchised Free State, who were thus joined in an unholy alliance with Transvaal, called the Golden Cats. Western Province could not contemplate working with their Cape neighbours and so Eastern Province and Border were grafted on to Natal and became the Coastal Sharks.
And for a while it worked. The main unions went out of their way to train and play at the satellite unions, and selections included some egalitarian idealism. The problem was that the players hated it. There were fights on the training fields. The bad faith spilled over to match days and, from 2002 to 2005, the Sharks and the Cats finished in the bottom three of the log every year, bar one.
In 2006, the competition expanded to 14 teams, the Cats got divorced and the Cheetahs, as they were now called, had their place at the top table. The Sharks had long since abandoned the pretence of including players from the Eastern Province and Border, a fact that contributed somewhat to the plunge in playing standards in the Eastern Cape.
And, if you want some insight into the mess that Saru is now forced to deal with, go back to 2005 and the very end of the much-loved Super 12. Brian van Rooyen, as the president of Saru at the time, had brokered a deal that would keep Free State out in the cold and admit an Eastern Cape side, dubbed the Southern Spears.
But Van Rooyen was ousted at Saru’s 2006 annual general meeting and the Spears disappeared from the radar, only to be resurrected as the Kings three years later. It wasn’t until 2013 that the Kings got to play Super Rugby, and then it was at the expense of the Lions. The 18-team, four-conference abomination we now sit with is a direct result of the petty politicking over the Kings.
Dwindling crowds and television audiences are linked to financial crises here and in Australia. The ARU has been propping up four of its five franchises with extra finance, and going bankrupt in the process. Saru announced a R23-million loss for the financial year just ended and, for the first time since 1996, is seriously contemplating semiprofessionalism at provincial level.
The current Super Rugby contract ends in August 2020. Before then the Sanzaar unions have to decide whether to carry on regardless, or to attempt to unscramble the omelette. The New Zealand Rugby Union rebuffed ARU attempts to exclude South Africa but by 2020 they may have no option but to embrace their trans-Tasman rivals.
By then Saru should have found a way to live without Super Rugby. It is the only member that could truly contemplate life outside the mainstream, because it managed to do that for the 25 years or so of international exclusion. That would be the fallback option if it cannot broker a deal with the northern hemisphere.
Either way, there are decisions coming that will make the culling of two franchises seem like small potatoes.