/ 12 October 2017

Imagining rugby – beyond 2020

The All Blacks performing the haka
The All Blacks performing the haka

The realignment of southern hemisphere rugby continues apace. The global season, which could be here as early as 2020, will ask some searching questions. Among them will be the big two: Is there a place for Super Rugby, and is there a place for the Rugby Championship?

The former has been dealt with exhaustively. Three teams have already been culled and there is a chance that more will go before the fixtures for 2018 are released. By 2020, it could be a dead duck.

The ongoing experiment that sees the Cheetahs and the Kings playing Pro 14 rugby is likely to be augmented. The South African Rugby Union (Saru) is looking at creating two more franchises to go north. That would give Saru four Trojan Horses, so to speak, with two seasons to discover and eliminate the pitfalls of playing in a different hemisphere.

The Rugby Championship is a different beast, however. Set up as the Tri-Nations in 1996, it ran until 2011, during which time New Zealand won the title 10 times, and Australia and South Africa three times each. Since Argentina joined in 2012, it has been a very different story. The All Blacks have won five years out of six and the Pumas have managed a grand total of three wins and a draw from 33 Tests.

This is not the kind of hegemony that draws crowds. To camouflage that fact, New Zealand played South Africa in Albany this year, and the Springboks met the Wallabies in Bloemfontein and the Pumas in Salta.

It is not a sustainable business model to play in small stadiums in front of less than capacity crowds. The bottom line is money. If television contracts and turnstile revenue cannot be maximised, the competition has no future. Indeed, it is fair to say that the public has already voted with its feet and that last week’s full house at Newlands could be the last kick of a dying horse.

That would be a shame, for the match in Cape Town was a great advert for the game. But the future of the Springbok/All Black rivalry needs to be reimagined. Familiarity has bred some contempt and the fixture needs to become entirely more scarce.

At this point the marketing gurus will be screaming about not being able to get the genie back into the bottle, but that’s hogwash. We are 21 years down the line from the beginning of professionalism and it’s time to grow up. The global season is not going to go away and tough decisions need to be made now, not in 2020. If Sanzaar (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby) can dismiss three Super Rugby teams it can stop the Rugby Championship before it bankrupts the game.

It cannot be defended on any sensible basis. It can’t be called a true competition, because from its inception the All Blacks have a playing record of played 33, won 30, drawn one, lost two. During the same span, the record of the Springboks and Wallabies is so similar as to be almost spooky. Put simply, the Wallabies have won one more game in total. Put even more simply, both sides win their home games and beat Argentina.

Then there is the issue of removing the best players from domestic rugby in all four countries, thereby reducing a competition as venerable as the Currie Cup to farce. This week, the final round of log play is on and unions have to explain to an incredulous public why some Springboks are available and others are not.

The only thing keeping the elite competitions going in the southern hemisphere is vested interests. Remove that and everything is up for grabs. It is going to take a lot of negotiation, but the global season needs to be embraced rather than repelled.

Imagine a time when rugby begins in February and ends in October, allowing three months for players to recuperate and for the public to regain its appetite for the sport. The missing three months could be devoted to Sevens to satisfy the insatiable demands of the broadcasters.

The first half of the season could be devoted to domestic rugby, the Premiership in Britain, the Top 14 in France, the Currie Cup in South Africa, and so on. The successful teams from those competitions would play against each other in a new cross-border tournament that would dominate the second half of the season.

The administrators will be wondering what would happen to the sides eliminated in the first half of the season. It’s difficult to sell a second-tier cross-border competition, but why try? Why not accept that the best teams progress, the rest tick over in a semiprofessional environment or, in this country at least, release their players to play club rugby.

As for international matches, the June window, perhaps expanded to six weeks, would remain as a buffer between the domestic and cross-border contests. Old-fashioned tours could fill the gap and every fourth year it would become the World Cup window. There are many stumbling blocks ahead for the administrators but they should not be put off by the fear of failure.