8 May 2018

Making sense of the Super Rugby rumour mill

7:51 pm on 8 May 2018

Opinion - Reports that South Africa's Super Rugby teams are looking at playing in Europe are nothing new, but with 'millions of pounds on offer', there might be some fire behind all this smoke.

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Photo: PhotoSport

Speculation is a wonderful thing, and this week has seen one of the lurking narratives in Super Rugby pop up again. But this time it doesn't look like it's going away for a while.

At first, it looked like the reports coming out of Wales were a load of hot air: that the South African Super Rugby franchises were about to take their ball and go play in Europe. The immediate reaction was that 'well, we've heard this one before', and that there didn't seem to be any evidence other than a few rumours.

Give it a couple of days, and wait for the inevitable denials, right? It didn't even take that long, with Super Rugby boss Andy Marinos sending out a strongly worded statement refuting everything that the Wales Online article had claimed.

Sharks boss Gary Teichmann also had no time for the story, saying: "No discussions have been held in terms of looking at Pro14. I don't know where that has come from." Of course, his team would be pretty happy where they are right now, as they comfortably beat the Highlanders in front of a big crowd at Kings Park, Durban, on the weekend.

All this after SANZAAR last week released a strategy document stating their reasonably lofty goals for the next 12 years for Super Rugby. On the surface, it would seem highly unlikely that they'd be planning that far ahead if they didn't have the assurance of one of the key stakeholders and original members.

The plan, in a nutshell, is to continue on with the way things are working at the moment and expand into North America eventually. Already the reduction from 18 to 15 teams has shown an improvement in the competitiveness of the competition, even though Australian rugby is in a dire state.

Except the reaction hasn't been exactly unanimous. Lions chief executive Kevin de Klerk at least acknowledged the elephant in the room, saying that there are 'millions of pounds on offer in Europe'.

What's that old adage about smoke and fire?

Already two South African teams have left Super Rugby and headed to the Pro14, even if they were pushed rather than doing it on their own volition. So the blueprint is there for what it takes for a South African side to compete in a European competition, even if the Cheetahs and Kings haven't exactly been a stunning success story in their debut season up north.

While there might not be any chance that the Sharks, Lions, Stormers or Bulls will jump ship next season, it is definitely worth pondering what exactly would Super Rugby look like without South Africa in it. The obvious answer is that it'd just be the NZ and Australian teams, with the odd game against the Jaguares and Sunwolves. However, it'd also mean a shorter season; probably finishing before the June test window and then leaving a gap in July that would have to be filled by bringing forward the Mitre 10 Cup. That would mean that the domestic competition would have the All Blacks back in it, except only for the first month or so.

But the main difference would come during the test season, because if South Africa were to leave SANZAAR, then it's likely there'd be no more Rugby Championship. No one would do well out of that, and the alternative arrangements are nigh on impossible anyway.

The Springboks would have to find other test opponents, which can't happen due to the fact that the northern and southern hemispheres have winter at a different time of year. Besides, they are in the enviable position of being able to play the greatest rivalry in rugby, against the All Blacks, twice a year. For all the talk of better money deals in Europe, that's the key factor that will be keeping South Africa in their current situation, you'd think.

The World Cup next year in Japan is rugby's brave next step into a new landscape. Given the amount of moves towards post tournament rights deals and the flow on effects that are being talked about, that may render this whole discussion a moot point anyway. For now though, it's safe to say that until the end of next year, South Africa isn't going to dump us for a new European model just yet.

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