While I respect famed rugby writer Mark Keohane I cannot help but disagree with his sentiments in his latest article whereby he suggested that South Africa send one more team to the Pro 14 to increase our competiveness in Super Rugby.
Does having one foot in SANZAAR and one foot in the European league really serve South African rugby’s interests? Will it make our rugby great again? I think the answer is a resounding no!
The fact is the people running our game are incompetent. They cannot seem to formulate a strategy that they can stick by that serves South African rugby, it seems they seek to find how South African rugby can serve them.
What has the SANZAAR alliance really done for South African rugby? Pre 1992 we had a winning record against every rugby playing nation on earth, we were easily the best and our success was a source of national pride, albeit it in an era politically we cannot look back at with much pride. The touring New Zealand Cavaliers team of 1986 came to South Africa and were easily dispensed with in the series 3-1, several of these players would go on to win the inaugural World Cup the following year.
So what has happened? Is it the quota system? No, the quota system cannot be blamed for our regression and anyone with an ounce of rugby knowledge will agree to that. There are certainly examples where players of colour were installed in the team that did not deserve to be there but there have been plenty of examples of white players who we could say the same of.
Is it a lack of talent? The recent world schools festival held in Paarl showed the sheer brilliance and depth of our youth rugby, two top ten teams from New Zealand came over and were bulldozed by their opposition with the exception of Napier Boys game against Monument, however anyone watching knows was an extremely flattering score line to say the lease.
Is it because of the player drain? Yes, this certainly plays a big part in it. But that can be solved which I will get to later on.
So what is then the reason for this major decline in the standard of our rugby? I would point it all toward our foolish alliance with SANZAAR. Since re-admission we have a record of 15 wins and 42 losses against the All Blacks, our record against the Wallabies now stands at 25 wins with 29 losses. Is it not ironic how the only two nations we have a losing record against since re-admission are the very same nations that we have formed this alliance with?
Now to be clear I am not attacking the alliance at an international level, I am attacking it at the club level. Let us scratch below the surface of the worlds so called “premier” rugby club competition. Where a South African team would fly halfway across the world and play 4 – 5 games a New Zealand or Australian team would fly to South Africa and play 2 or 3 games against local opposition. For Australian teams travelling to New Zealand and visa-versa there is no distinct disadvantage in terms of flying time nor time zone difference.
The impact on playing for extended periods away with jet lag and travel has seen South African sides at a massive disadvantage, the psychological impact of losing regular matches against New Zealand and Australian clubs has then carried on into the international sphere and we can see the final result as indicated above.
Still don’t believe me? How about the fact that our junior world cup record against New Zealand stands at 6 games played, 5 games won and 1 game lost. Against Australia it stands at 2 games won and 1 game lost but remember we hardly meet with Australia in this competition due to the fact they are hardly ever in playoff finals contention. Comparing junior level is of important as these players have not yet been fully exposed to the uneven playing field that is Super Rugby.
The fact is that it is South African rugby are the losers in Super Rugby. I have not found any information online but I would like to know how the television rights are distributed to each union. With no South Africa, a rugby mad nation with a population of 55 million what negotiating power do Australia with rugby league being the dominant sport in a nation of 24 million and New Zealand with a population 4.6 million people really have?
The television rights generated by Super Rugby allow Australia and New Zealand vast resources with which to develop their game locally. Without South Africa how much would television revenue would the competition generate? We are one of the biggest contributors to our major foes on the field fortune.
South Africa is holding all the cards and yet our pathetic self-serving administrators negotiate on the back foot. I will say it again, they seek to determine how South African rugby can serve them and not how they can serve South African rugby.
Now that the two major problems which are the player drain and the SANZAAR alliance have been identified what would I recommend being the way forward? Well if I was elected president of SARU I would take the below actions to move forward.
I would inform SANZAAR that South African rugby would be leaving the alliance at Super Rugby level and that we wished to remain in the Rugby Championship. They may kick and scream and threaten to not allow us to enter the competition. The fact is that us leaving Super Rugby may hurt them, but us leaving the alliance all together would bankrupt them. They would have no choice but to concede to our demands.
I would discuss an alliance with the Pro 14 whereby I would propose a total of 8 South African franchises (Nelspruit and Kimberly would be new franchises) to enter the competition forming a new competition called the Pro 20 that would consist of 4 pools of 5 teams.
The top 2 teams from each pool would enter the knockout competition as well as automatically qualifying for the European Rugby Champions Cup which would be renamed to the Rugby Champions Cup. Each third placed team would play in their own knockout tournament with the winner of this playoff series securing qualification to the Champions Cup. Each fourth placed team would automatically qualify for the Challenge Cup with each bottom ranked club playing a knockout tournament for the fifth spot in the Challenge Cup – every game would be exciting and would count for something.
I would then talk to my new alliance partners regarding the restructuring of the Champions Cup as well as the Rugby Challenge Cup with new South African teams added to the competition.
With South Africa’s inclusion in the tournament and a part of this new club alliance would come a financial windfall the likes of which we would have never seen before. Television rights for the Pro 20 and the Champions and Challenge cups would be astronomical dwarfing what we would receive staying in Super Rugby.
I would then create rules and a structure regarding player movement that would be agreed upon by all member clubs. Firstly no club may offer a contract to a player under the age of 20 and secondly a transfer market would be formed. If a major European club wished to contract a talented South African player that franchise would then receive a transfer fee, the same structure that is seen in European Football.
Our coffers would be filled to the brim, television rights as well as player transfers would mean that Unions would have multiple revenue streams as well as incentives for developing local talent. Games would be exciting and played in what is virtually the same time zone with shorter flight times and the crowds would return.
Free movement of players and coaches would only help our rugby, European players could be offered contracts to play for South African franchises. Our players taking part in what will be far and away the world’s strongest competition would only improve the cause of the national team.
Rugby is evolving and so too should our administrators, can you imagine offering a soccer team based outside of Europe a chance to be a part of the Champions League? The opportunity would be far too good to pass up, is it the center of world soccer and it will soon be the center of world rugby. We have already seen a player exodus to the riches of Europe yet have received no discernable benefit.
Those with romantic notions of playing against the best and measuring ourselves against the best miss the point, we have to first and foremost do what is right for South African rugby. We are artificially propping up Australian and New Zealand rugby to our own detriment, joining the European leagues is the only way to gain some form of control over our destiny as players are going to move regardless – we must be stoic in our resolve and understand that sometimes obstacles present themselves as opportunities. By leaving Super Rugby and joining the new power base of rugby we will make South African Rugby great again!