5 reasons Rugby Championship lacks clout

Allister Coetzee (Getty)
Allister Coetzee (Getty)

Cape Town - The roster for next year’s Rugby Championship was revealed earlier this week ... to a relative minimum of fanfare, it seemed, in the competing nations.

Perhaps it had to do, to a good extent, with general southern hemisphere “rugby fatigue” as the long season is currently in hibernation for a couple of months until February.

But here are five pivotal reasons, I feel, why the tournament - since its inception as a four-country one in 2012 - has struggled to match the gravitas of the admittedly more time-honoured Six Nations in the “north’ …

1. The overwhelming mastery of New Zealand

Yes, they’re a global sporting juggernaut of rare proportions, which brings its own broad benefits, but the so-superior All Blacks have also inadvertently “killed” the Championship as a competitive entity in recent seasons.

The closing round or even two have tended to become more about deciding the order the also-rans will finish in, rather than having any bearing on the title itself.

In each of the five seasons of the tournament so far when it has been played over a conventional double round (so only excluding RWC year, 2015), New Zealand have won - and usually romped to - the title.

They clinched the inaugural tournament by 14 points in 2012, claimed 2013 by nine, 2014 by three, 2016 by a massive 17, and this year’s by 13.

That’s magic stuff by the All Blacks, but doesn’t exactly make the tournament as a whole edge-of-the-seat stuff for neutrals and fans of the other competing nations.

2. The violent decline of the Springboks

It is a sad reality that youthful followers of either the All Blacks or Springboks are oblivious to the nail-biting phenomenon and serious pre-match butterflies that used to mark bilateral clashes.

After all, that was also the extended period when NZ v SA was arguably the premier occurrence on the global rugby calendar, such was the ferocity and closeness of the rivalry.

In the recent Championship era, specifically, it has regressed statistically to much closer to a “no contest”: the All Blacks hold the aces in tourney wins terms by 10-1.

There are a few notably gory scorelines, too - all of them in the Allister Coetzee tenure - like last season’s respective 41-13 and 57-15 outcomes and the record 57-0 drubbing earlier this year.

If the Boks can somehow pick themselves up off the deck performance-wise in the near-future, it will automatically breathe welcome life into the Championship as well.

3. The Jaguares simply becoming Argentina for the tournament

It is a challenge for the marketers and public relations people outside of Argentina to muster fitting levels of Championship enthusiasm over the Pumas, with respect, when they are really just an extension of a Jaguares side who haven’t exactly set Super Rugby alight yet.

After all, the Jaguares, following two years in the franchise competition, ended 13th overall out of 18 teams in 2016 and 10th earlier this year.

Under such circumstances, it is hard to get excited about the prospects of the same personnel one tier higher in the Champs not too long afterwards - and Argentina have duly brought up the rear in each of the last two tournaments, with a flimsy one win from 12 matches.

Is it any coincidence, too, that the Pumas’ backward steps in the international pecking order (currently eighth, after being semi-finalists at the 2015 World Cup) have come since the decision not to pick quality European-based players like Juan Imhoff and Facundo Isa?

4. The sameness of the annual roster

Logistical factors, in fairness, must play a role: when you have an event featuring teams from across the swathe of three continents it cannot be a straightforward matter dealing with the travel issues involved.

But there is also a definite sense of monotony, I feel, that the order of business roster-wise is always the same in the Championship; it has been so in every full-tournament year since formulation in 2012.

Once again, for example, the Boks will deceptively open their campaign in 2018 with home-and-away tussles against Argentina, traditionally the weakest side.

It also seems a little unfair that, in a departure from the way they used to shuffle fixtures in the former Tri-Nations, the second Boks v All Blacks game is always a home one for South Africa these days, in the final round.

Of course you won’t hear any complaints from SARU on that score, given the potential (well, yes, it is only that) for the Springboks to clinch the title before our own faithful - and maybe the All Blacks don’t fret very much simply because of the extent of their modern domination?

Nevertheless, the unchanging order of matches does little to alleviate an impression of “same old, same old”, don’t you think?

5. A double round doesn’t help?

Less is seemingly more in the Six Nations, where the competing teams strictly play each other once.

That means that, for example, England play old foes Scotland at home once every two years, so every other year the hostilities switch to Murrayfield - ensuring a better sense of freshness and novelty value, a situation that applies to bilateral matches across the tournament.

Of course money talks (so do associated TV rights and the like), so SANZAAR must be reluctant to curtail the Championship to a single round - something that only happens in World Cup years, once every four - even if it offers a better prospect of a tighter, more intense competition and less danger of dead-rubber fixtures at the back end, as happens a little too often at present.

That scenario on a more regular basis, of course, would mean only three matches per side annually (whereas in the Six Nations it is a more satisfying five apiece).

But it does bring back into focus the possibility in the medium to longer term, of a Pacific Islands team being added to the Championship, stretching overall participation to five sides and probably enhancing the likelihood of a single round.

That said, Super Rugby somehow seems the more logical place for a Pacific Islands outfit to cut its teeth first.

So for the medium-term future the status quo, warts and all, should remain …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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