Super Rugby

Coronavirus the final nail in SA's Super Rugby coffin?

It appears increasingly likely that South Africa's run in Super Rugby has been shoulder-charged into touch - for the foreseeable future at least.

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Super Rugby as we know it today kicked off in 1996 when the sport turned professional and Super 12 was launched. This year's tournament was due to crown a 25th winner of the southern hemisphere spectacle, but its conclusion was curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic.

It now appears the Sharks' 24-14 win over the Stormers in Durban on Saturday, 14 March, 2020 could well be the final ever Super Rugby match played involving South African teams.

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Obituaries for Super Rugby have been written every year since Argentina's admission turned Sanzar into Sanzaar back in 2016.

Now the prognosis appears terminal.

Once upon a time Super Rugby was the premier competition in the world. The skill levels on display in Super 12 far surpassed anything seen around the world to that point. Detractors labelled it as "basketball rugby" for its high scores and missed tackles, but that was countered by the breathtaking speed of the attacks and the enjoyment experienced by crowds that flocked to - and filled - stadiums.

Then Sanzar started messing with the format, adding a couple of bits here, taking some away there.

The South African and Australian unions, eager for a bigger slice of the pie, each got an extra franchise in 2006 (Cheetahs and Western Force) as Super 12 became Super 14. In 2011, a 15th team was added in the form of the Melbourne Rebels and the tournament was divided into three conferences.

Money talks and the promise of billion-dollar broadcasting contracts saw three more teams - the Jaguares from Argentina, the Sunwolves from Japan and a sixth South African franchise (Kings) - join in 2016. The end product was an unholy mess.

Australia and South Africa - because of their player drain - couldn't sustain 11 franchises between them. Results became increasingly uncompetitive. At one stage, Australian franchises lost 40 consecutive matches to New Zealand opposition.

Now thanks in part to Covid-19, the once golden goose of world rugby is going the way of the dodo.

While the worldwide coronavirus lockdown may have delivered the final, fatal blow, truth be told, Super Rugby has been suffering from an underlying health condition for years.

Hopefully in years to come, Sanzaar's constant meddling will become a case study of how to ruin a perfectly good sporting competition.

Lesson to be learnt by the suits at Saanzar: Quantity dilutes quality. When you find a model that works, don't mess with it.

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The New Zealand Rugby Union was quick to launch a review into its own future in Super Rugby and is currently investigating alternative competition structures. The most likely scenario from a now more than ever important cost-saving point of view will involve restarting domestic cup competitions in Australia and New Zealand in the latter half of the year before a trans-Tasman tournament launches next year.

These new-look tournaments are widely expected to include teams from the rugby-playing Pacific Island nations (Samoa, Tonga and Fiji) and also involve a Japanese team, thus giving the Sunwolves a potential lifeline. As part of the plan, in due course the USA will hopefully be welcomed too.

The inclusion of those Tier 2 nations is sure to please World Rugby and go a long way to resolving the ongoing fight over their inclusion in the rugby calendar, and could well see some much needed pounds flow into the coffers of those countries competing.

International travel has been an exorbitant cost feature of Super Rugby over the years, and with many flight paths currently closed due to the coronavirus crisis, there is widespread speculation that teams from South Africa and Argentina will be omitted from such an Asia-Pacific model of Super Rugby.

In this Asia-Pacific tournament's favour is the close proximity of those countries to one another. Counting against including South Africa is our geographical location.

Local players and fans have bemoaned since Day 1 back in 1996 the fact that South African teams have drawn the short end of the stick with regards to travel Down Under and the perceived advantage that affords their opponents. Until they win of course. Then the fact you boarded a flight is quickly forgotten.

It's a quick hop across the ditch from Australia to New Zealand. And Fiji is always a lovely place to visit.

Highly esteemed Rugby Australia chairperson Paul McLean told The Australian website that he 'couldn't see South Africa and Argentina being involved anywhere in the short-term,' further sounding the death knell to South Africa's participation in whatever evolves out of Super Rugby in Australasia and Oceania.

The man leading New Zealand's review, lawyer and Blues chairperson Don Mackinnon, confirmed a more localised Super Rugby competition will be strongly considered, along with the introduction of the Pacific Islands.

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So where does that leave South Africa?

At the bottom of Africa with no powerhouse neighbouring rugby-playing countries to speak of.

At best this year's Currie Cup could be the most competitive in several years as the Springboks play a full part in its duration.

For many this represents the perfect opportunity to foster closer ties with Europe who lie in a similar time zone. That's forgetting of course it's still an 11-hour trip to London, further to France, and even further still when travelling via Dubai for the cheapest ticket as cost-cutting measures become paramount.

But who has a crystal ball to determine when those European countries so badly affected by Covid-19 (the UK, Italy and France among them), will be ready to play again?

And will they even want us?

The PRO14 already has, um, 14 teams and the fact the poor Cheetahs and Kings have to travel north up to four times a year is madness in itself (even more if they happened to make an away semi-final or final).

The top-tier club tournament in Europe, the European Rugby Champions Cup, is currently bursting at the seams with 20 teams.

A best case scenario in 2021 would appear to be if South Africa adopt their own home-and-away Super Rugby tournament with the winners challenging the victors from a similar Asia-Pacific competition.

And a hope and a prayer that we retain close ties at Test level with our All Blacks and Wallaby rivals.

However it unfolds, it promises to be a bumpy road ahead!

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