The only future for a healthier and stronger South African Super Rugby presence is to reduce the number of participating teams from four to three.
This would free up one of the top four teams to play in the PRO14 and also ensure that Super Rugby can revert to a single round league structure.
The tournament, be it 18 or 15 teams, is a mess with the existing conference structure.
All Blacks captain Kieran Read earlier in the week was the latest player to voice his displeasure at the current Super Rugby format, saying the conference system had to go. Read, like everyone expect SANZAAR’s leadership, promotes a competition in which each team plays the other once and the top four go into playoff, with the top two rewarded with home ground advantage.
The conference system has never worked because it has invariably rewarded a team a home playoff when ordinarily the team is ranked outside the top four based on the season's results.
Australia’s conference, for the past five years, has been a shambles and New Zealand’s five franchises have fought a war of attrition, with the New Zealand conference tougher to win than Super Rugby’s title.
South Africa has relied largely on the Lions for credibility over the last three years. Previously, they relied on the Bulls while the Stormers and Sharks have occasionally delivered a competitive season or three.
Super Rugby, spread across four, five and six South African franchise participants, has never delivered on the vision. Then again, having a strategic plan often doesn’t translate into an operational success.
Super Rugby is important to South African rugby, but it isn’t the make or break of South African rugby. South Africa, geographically, has the biggest advantage over New Zealand and Australia when it comes to being able to play in competitions in the northern and southern hemisphere.
South African rugby players, in terms of quality of opposition, will always gain something from playing the best of New Zealand. It’s imperative to recognise this. Equally, South African rugby will be the beneficiary for introducing a stronger and more competitive franchise to an expanded PRO14.
It will allow the national coach and the national rugby leadership a foot in both hemispheres, with realism of success in the different competitions.
Currently, South African teams make up numbers in both competitions.
The well-being and future of the South African game has to be at heart of all decision-making post 2020. It’s a lie that the Super 15 is in any way better than the flop of Super 18. The complex nature of the structure has detracted from the fairness of the playing schedule, and it has compromised the integrity of the competition.
The future has to be a single round tournament.
The future also can’t accommodate four South African franchises.
It’s time for the four South African franchises to put their big boy pants on, disregard historical provincial and regional agendas and petty politics and to positively influence the changing face of the South African professional rugby.
The leadership in these four regions must sit with the SA Rugby executive and operational chief and find common ground on what commercially is the most rewarding for South African rugby as a collective.
The priority has to be that all decisions work in favour of South African rugby, with the Springboks the ultimate beneficiary of the two-hemisphere playing split.
The decision of which one of the four SA teams transfers from Super Rugby to an expanded PRO14 would hopefully be done in discussion with all the role players, with realism ruling over romanticism.
If there can’t be common ground, then decisive leadership should dictate that historical competition results rank the teams one to four and number four heads north.
It’s all a win-win situation for South African rugby if there is an acknowledgement of the awful state of Super Rugby.
It will also allow the reinvention of the Currie Cup, which unfortunately has for some time been a second-tier feeder competition to the regional ambitions associated with Super Rugby.
South African rugby’s strength is in the reduction of numbers. Less is more because less will also allow for more in the north.
Super Rugby has to go back to the future to get it right and South African rugby bosses must lead this time travel.
Three is the magical number, in the south and in the north.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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