Ditch Super Rugby? Covid-19 gives SA time to breathe

Herman Mostert
Herman Mostert
  • SA Rugby should use the next year to gauge whether it is viable for its franchises to stay in Super Rugby or head to the northern hemisphere.
  • In a weird sense, the Covid-19 pandemic has given the governing body breathing room to avoid making hasty decisions.
  • There is a likely future for all eight of the country's franchises.

There have been fresh rumours over the past week that South Africa will soon leave Super Rugby for greener pastures in the northern hemisphere.

This after the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZR) announced plans to stage a trans-Tasman Super Rugby event in 2021, with South Africa and Argentina excluded.

While addressing reporters in a virtual meeting on Tuesday, SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux confirmed the NZR's plans, however, the rugby boss stressed South Africa had not been ditched from Super Rugby.

In fact, it is only due to restrictions imposed by Covid-19 protocols that will force South Africa to go at it alone next year.

Roux spoke of an agreement in place between the Sanzaar partners for 2021 to be considered a "crossover year".

What this essentially means is the respective countries will be allowed to trial their own domestic competitions to make up for the reality that teams likely still will not be able to travel abroad.

It will provide SA Rugby with the opportunity to accommodate all eight of its franchises - the Bulls, Lions, Sharks, Stormers, Cheetahs, Southern Kings, Griquas and Pumas - into a locally based version of Super Rugby.

Roux also hinted at a cross-border play-off scenario that could see the top performers of each country squaring off for a southern hemisphere title.

The relief from a South African perspective is that such a scenario would not leave any of our franchises out in the cold.

There had been renewed fears over the future of the Cheetahs and Kings after reports suggested South Africa's four Super Rugby outfits would be added to an expanded PRO16 competition up north.

The above-mentioned scenario would also provide Griquas and the Pumas, who were both awarded franchise status by SA Rugby in late 2017, with the opportunity to show their mettle.

There were earlier talks of them playing in a northern hemisphere event but to date their futures appear uncertain.

While Roux made it clear in his briefing there were no concrete plans for South Africa to exit Super Rugby for good, he also did not deny there could be a breakaway of sorts in the near future.

"We are still having discussions on what the year 2021 will look like, and what it will look like beyond 2021… Having said that, I would not be doing my job if I do not, along with my executive, look at a Plan B and Plan C … and to be fair I'm doing that for far more than 12 months in terms of having additional options available for South African rugby.

"Those options differ and there is more than one on the table. And given the sensitivity of it, I can’t really say what they are, but I can tell you that we are a long way down the road of having different options that will probably suit us better and will probably help us in building towards what we believe is our strategic framework and the direction that we need to go for within the next 10 years," Roux said.

From these quotes, it is fair to assume there have, at the very least, been discussions regarding a European future for South Africa's top franchises.

And the Covid-19 crisis has perhaps bought more time for SA Rugby's top brass to properly gauge the right moves going forward.

I have discussed in a previous column the pros and cons of a move up north, and it is apparent there is no clear consensus yet.

However, one cannot blame Roux, and SA Rugby for that matter, for still being in two minds about a move north.

One thing this "crossover year" has provided, is it has given SA Rugby the opportunity to ponder new formats and gauge whether competing without teams from Australasia is viable.

It will also leave them with the opportunity to determine whether having eight franchise teams is sustainable for the future.

It has already been confirmed that only the eight teams with franchise status will play any further part in the season, with the Currie Cup sure to take on more prominence.

It will, however, likely lead to a scenario of an eight-team Currie Cup followed by an eight-team local Super Rugby event early next year.

Yes, that means the Stormers playing Super Rugby and Western Province Currie Cup... in reality just back-to-back versions of the same event.   

However, given the extraordinary circumstances, going this route may be the only viable option. It would at least mean the country's top rugby players would not be undercooked heading into next year's British & Irish Lions series.

It may also help answer a burning question: Can South Africa continue with the same number of professional outfits going forward?

Even though Roux made it clear the futures of the so-called smaller unions were not at risk, the rugby bosses may come to realise, from a financial perspective, these unions need to become amateur feeder unions in future.

There is also the question of whether SA Rugby would want its best four franchises competing (as hinted in recent media reports) in an expanded PRO16?

Personally, I do not share the same enthusiasm on this event as its organisers have so often enthused - the PRO14 is of a lower standard than Super Rugby and if South Africa wanted to enter the European market, playing in the European Champions Cup should be first prize.

This competition works different in that only the best teams of each country qualify for a group staged event, before knockout rounds starting with quarter-finals.

Roux did not shed more light on his plans B or C, but one would hope that "B" would translate to the Champions Cup.

It is unlikely that more than four South African franchises would be granted entry into the Champions Cup, which means the local event between eight franchises would be used as qualifiers to determine the country's entrants.

There could also be a scenario where SA Rugby pushed for participation into both European events, i.e. the top four playing in the Champions Cup and the remainder scrapping it out for PRO14 spots.

These are all hypothetical scenarios and the possibility of staying in Super Rugby should also not be discarded, nor other possible opportunities elsewhere.

Whatever transpires, one would back SA Rugby to have a few aces up its sleeves regarding the future of its franchises.

Therefore, in a weird sense, this "crossover year" has allowed the governing body some breathing room as to what is the best outcome for its future…

Herman Mostert is a long-time Sport24 employee. His sporting interests range from tennis, rugby, cricket and golf to soccer.

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.

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