With the Pro12 set for the inclusion of the Cheetahs and the Kings in the 2017/18 season and Australian rugby set to axe either the Melbourne Rebels or the Western Force, the future of Super Rugby is up in the air.
This article aims to analyse how it has developed since its conception, determine what the main issues surrounding its current structure are and hypothesise as to what its future may hold.
Super Rugby was first introduced in 1992 as the Super 6, a tournament which featured two Australian state teams (Queensland and New South Wales), three New Zealand provincial sides (Canterbury, Auckland and Wellington) and Fiji. It was expanded to include ten teams in 1993, and the introduction of professionalism in 1995 and the success of that year’s World Cup led to the creation of SANZAR and the subsequent Super 12 rugby and Tri Nations tournaments.
As a result of an increase in income from TV rights deals, the Super 12 was expanded to the Super 14 in 2006 with the Force and the Cheetahs being added to the tournament. In 2011, the Rebels were added to the tournament, enabling the formation of three conferences and a restructuring of the tournament (which has since been argued as unnecessarily complicated).
The 2016/17 season saw the Jaguares and Sunwolves franchises added to the tournament, creating two “South African” conferences and further complicating Super Rugby’s structure. The constant expansion and restructuring of the tournament has largely been driven by increasing potential financial gains for SANZAAR and the independent rugby federations, as well as to increase the reach of professional rugby in the southern hemisphere.
Whilst the TV rights deals associated with Super Rugby have increased over the past two decades, the tournament has arguably become over-inflated, leading to the removal of three franchises for next season. With two South African franchises all but guaranteed places in next season’s Pro12 competition, there have been calls from within Australian rugby to revoke plans to cut one of their franchises and pursue a trans-Tasman competition with their Kiwi neighbours from 2021 onwards, whilst South African club rugby could pursue a future in Europe.
If the SARU decides that a future of playing rugby in Europe’s top competitions is financially preferable and more logistically manageable compared to a future in Super Rugby, rugby union’s infrastructure in the southern hemisphere will be fundamentally altered. This raises a number of talking points, with a key question being that if this is the case, what lies ahead for the future of SANZAAR?
If it is disbanded as a result of the SARU leaving, will Super Rugby revert back to a Super 12 format with five teams from New Zealand and Australia as well as the Jaguares and the Sunwolves? If not, what would happen to Super Rugby’s newest entrants? Will a Pacific Island franchise be created to join the tournament? What is the future of the Rugby Championship (SANZAAR’s cash cow compared to Super Rugby)? Would a strictly trans-Tasman competition benefit rugby unions as a whole? And are Australian sides quality enough to warrant a direct challenge with the New Zealand franchises?
These questions, as well as many more, require answering in the coming years, with the Cheetahs and the Kings’ impending inclusion in the Pro12 next season being viewed as the SARU ‘testing the waters on the long-term option of their teams playing in European competitions full-time from 2021,’ according to Australian Rugby Union Players’ Association chief executive Ross Xenos (via Rugby Heaven).
Super Rugby has been argued to be the world’s most engrossing domestic rugby competition that boasts the highest quality players, highlighted by the recent dominance of New Zealand and previous dominance of Australia and South Africa on rugby union’s international stage. However, SANZAAR’s ambition has arguably led to the tournament becoming too large and complicated for its own good.
This has been highlighted by the fact that the newest entrants to the competition (the Sunwolves, Jaguares, Kings, Rebels, Cheetahs and Force) have all consistently placed in the bottom half of the overall tables since their inclusion.
Alternatives to the current format, if South African teams were to play in Europe, could range from continuing Super Rugby with twelve teams whilst attempting to set up three rugby franchises from the Pacific Islands (Fiji, Samoa and Tonga) in the coming years, to Super Rugby being completely disbanded in favour of a trans-Tasman competition, whilst Japan and Argentina attempt to develop their own professional club rugby championships.
The immediate future will see four teams from South Africa compete against five Kiwi franchises, one Argentinian, one Japanese and probably four Australian sides in the 2017/18 season. The future of the tournament is expected to hinge largely on how successful the SARU judges the Cheetahs and Kings’ first season in the Pro12 to be in terms of finances, logistics and on-field performances.
It will be an uphill challenge for both of these teams, as they will have to compete in the Pro12 within two months of the Super Rugby season finishing, never mind the amount of time it will take to travel back and forth from South Africa to Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Italy.
Graham Manditsch, Pundit Arena