Super Rugby

EXPLAINER | What exactly will Super Rugby look like in 2021?

Get used to Lukhanyo Am and Steven Kitshoff being involved in more local derbies next year. (Gallo Images)
Get used to Lukhanyo Am and Steven Kitshoff being involved in more local derbies next year. (Gallo Images)
  • Confusion has reigned over the past few days over New Zealand apparently dumping South Africa and Argentina from Super Rugby, but that's not actually the case.
  • Instead, 2021 - because of its expected border closures due to Covid-19 - allows the regional partners to, in essence, trial new formats, notably New Zealand who wants a Trans-Tasman competition in future.
  • Because each country has a freedom of sorts with its domestic-based competitions, next year's SA version of Super Rugby could even feature the PRO14 teams and the Pumas and Griquas.
  • A mooted, belated crossover tournament near the middle of the year seems unlikely as SA Rugby wants to focus on the British & Irish Lions tour.

There has been much confusion over South Africa's future in Super Rugby.

Much of that stems from the release of New Zealand Rugby's Aratipu report, an independent review of the country's professional structures.

One of its most important recommendations is that they participate in a tournament that features all five of their franchises, two to four Australian teams and a new outfit from the Pacific Islands.

That would obviously leave South Africa and Argentina out in the cold.

However, Jurie Roux, SA Rugby's chief, on Tuesday made it clear that Super Rugby was not dead and that the fragile Sanzaar alliance was still intact.

So what are all these ructions of splits and changes all about.

This guide should provide some clarity.

If New Zealand's competition overhaul doesn't mean that Super Rugby is being scrapped, why does it sound that way?

It's true that the Kiwis have been pondering for some time now whether the tournament is still commercially viable and whether the on-field product remains attractive, which is why the Aratipu review was launched in late January already.

All that the Covid-19 pandemic has done is speed up the need for New Zealand rugby to plan for its future.

"Everyone has seen New Zealand's announcement in terms of their preferred competition structure," said Roux.

"To be fair, they've advised us about their views all the way. New Zealand has got every right to determine their future. But in terms of Sanzaar and the joint venture, there's a very legal agreement in place."

So if the divorce isn't happening, why will New Zealand go at things alone next year already?

Everyone will go at it alone.

There's an agreement in place between the Sanzaar partners that 2021 is a "crossover year".

What that essentially means is that the respective countries are being allowed a trial run of different domestic competitions to make up for the reality that teams probably still won't be able to travel overseas.

New Zealand has advised that indications are that it would only start opening its borders again by the end of May next year, meaning Super Rugby in its current format is impossible.

"The plan is for us to play domestically from February to April, and if the borders are opened then we can have some sort of format across the conferences," said Roux.

But as cricket has shown us with the England and West Indies Test series, international action can take place?

Yes, but under very strict conditions that are unsustainable for the hustle and bustle of Super Rugby's fixture list.

South African teams and the Jaguares will only be able to travel Down Under by first going into quarantine for two weeks.

It simply wouldn't make sense to go to New Zealand, stay in isolation for two weeks, play two fixtures, go to Australia and go through the same procedure and then return to South Africa in isolation for another two weeks.

Playing three to four overseas games in a two-month period borders on madness.

So if the Kiwis and Aussies are allowed to experiment with their domestic formats, is South Africa allowed to do so too?

Correct.

"We've had to plan throughout these past few months as if we would only be able to play domestically," said Roux.

"Everyone would. Then New Zealand indicated after their review that they would like to play domestically but with more than their five franchises."

And here's the kicker.

"That's something we can do too. Nothing prevents us from including the Pumas, Griquas as well as the Cheetahs and Kings if they can't play in the PRO14. After we've finished that domestic tournament, there could be a cross-border tournament," said Roux.

What if a non-Super Rugby franchise springs a surprise and wins the right to play in the crossover tournament?

It's probably unlikely that you'd see the Pumas or Kings play the Crusaders, particularly since none of those teams are part of the current competition structure.

However, nothing is cast in stone as the Sanzaar partners still need to discuss what exactly would constitute the crossover tournament.

Will it be a playoff between the top-ranked sides from each country's domestic version? Or what?

Also, there's another elephant in the room...

And that is?

The British & Irish Lions tour.

"We're concerning ourselves with what domestic tournament we can play and at what stage will we enter the crossover competition. Crucially, at what time will we be done with that so that we can prepare our teams for the Lions tour," said Roux.

"That's our focus for 2021."