Super Rugby

Super Rugby without SA? Good luck with that

Reds hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa and Rebels flyhalf Matt Toomua compete for the ball during the Super Rugby AU encounter at Brookvale Oval on 10 July 2020.
Reds hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa and Rebels flyhalf Matt Toomua compete for the ball during the Super Rugby AU encounter at Brookvale Oval on 10 July 2020.
Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
  • A South Africa-free Super Rugby would take away the travel time-zone challenges … but have precious few other pluses.
  • NZ's huge, modern Bledisloe Cup dominance at Test level would likely spill over into a rejigged Super Rugby.
  • The vast majority of current Aussie sides in the competition end up as also-rans by the end of ordinary season.

Rugby’s loyalties and alignments planetwide were in a long-time state of uncertainty even before the crippling intervention of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Talk of a global season has been “on the table” for many years without things ever coming to any notable fruition, the main influencers in the northern and southern hemispheres largely going about their respective business in isolation to each other in many respects.

But a state of instability within the Sanzaar alliance itself has only gathered steam during the humour-testing lockdown climate - even if the no-play hallmark has become less relevant now to New Zealand, particularly, and Australia.

At very least, these are interesting times: statutorily, as things stand, the traditional, more all-embracing form of Super Rugby should get cracking again in the next southern season in 2021, assuming that the Covid-19 crisis has been suitably repelled.

But it looks tenuous.

Even as rumours persist that South Africa’s rugby bosses are being seduced by the idea of shifting the four flagship Super Rugby franchises to (an expanded) PRO14 across the equator, similar reports keep cropping up that the big two Australasian countries are conspiring to “go it alone” with the competition - abandoning the SA element anyway.

Not having to undergo the long slog across the Indian Ocean regularly would have appeal both travel budget-wise in NZ and Australia and among their players, no longer having to grapple the repeated effects during the tournament of time-zone fatigue.

It is an awful lot easier for the Blues, for example, to hop across the Tasman from Auckland for a scrap with either the Rebels in Melbourne or Waratahs in Sydney than to have to fly long-haul, via both Sydney and Johannesburg, for a Capetonian meeting with the Stormers.

But quite apart from the major consideration of the television slice of the Super Rugby pie facilitated by South Africa’s involvement right from its pro-era inception in 1996, just how much appeal would the competition have rugby-wise if restricted purely to NZ and Australia in future?

In weighing that up, an important acknowledgement to make immediately is that New Zealand franchises - and especially the iconic, streets-ahead-of-the-rest Crusaders - have greatly dominated.

The overall title has gone that country’s way, whether by the mighty ‘Saders or occasionally others, 17 times out of 24 ... or 70.83 percent.

Australia sports four experiences of the main silverware, and South Africa three (all to the Bulls, in a notable four-year period between 2007 and 2010).

But in more recent seasons, a burgeoning trend has developed of the Aussie conference being consistently the weakest of the three - and by extension, sides from there generally occupying the lowest rungs on the overall log.

The situation mirrors, really, a glaringly lengthy spell of All Black dominance over the Wallabies at Test level, where the Bledisloe Cup was last on Aussie soil back in 2002.

Since then, New Zealand have won 39 bilateral Tests to Australia’s nine (with two draws): that alone says much about the latter nation’s struggle to remain a genuine rugby union force, in the face of the ever-present “rival footie” challenges there.

If the tournament has always had a slightly lopsided look in NZ favour, it runs the risk of only looking much more acutely so if you suddenly pulled the plug - or they left of own accord - on the four-strong SA element.

The last four years vividly demonstrate how much more frequently the Aussie franchises have been among the rats and mice, if you like, than South African equivalents.

When it was still a bloated, 18-team competition in 2017, four of the five Australian franchises were among the bottom seven after ordinary season (all of them even behind the soon-to-be-doomed Southern Kings from South Africa).

By contrast, SA had three teams in the key top eight, including the log-topping Lions.

In 2018, the restoration of a 15-team tournament did little to perk up the Aussie challenge: again, three of four all-Australian teams ended in the bottom seven, outside the playoffs zone.

Last year, once again, saw three of the four fail to make the finals series, while in the 2020 tournament - ahead of its suspension in March - recent history was simply in the process of repeating itself, it appeared.

While the Brumbies were riding high in second place, just behind the vibrant Sharks, they were the glaring exceptions to the Australian rule: all of the Waratahs, Reds and Rebels were among the non-KO also-rans, as things stood.

It is against that stubborn backdrop that those favouring a purely trans-Tasman Super Rugby from next year dubiously put forward their pitches.

Aussie winner any time soon, anyone?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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