While it’s been a likely move ever since New Zealand Rugby effectively announced that they didn’t see South African involvement in Super Rugby as beneficial for the long-term future, the South African Rugby Union have now confirmed that a move to the Northern Hemisphere for club rugby is the preferred move forward.
“Our members are excited about the prospect of closer alignment with PRO Rugby Championship and seeking a northern hemisphere future, but we would not have been taking this decision but for actions elsewhere,” said SARU chairman Jurie Roux.
The Bulls, Sharks, Stormers, and Lions’ move to Europe will significantly alter the shape of international club rugby in the Southern Hemisphere and despite NZR’s desire for the change, there’s going to be some significant fallout due to the developments.
From a player’s point of view, the removal of South Africa from Super Rugby means no more two-week tours involving multiple long-haul flights.
That’s great for player welfare – and players’ families will no doubt be over the moon that they no longer have to say goodbye to their fathers, husbands and partners for three weeks a year.
On the flips side, various NZ stars, including the likes of Brad Weber and Bryn Hall, have spoken about how beneficial tours are for team bonding – often it’s the international travel that really helps new players get an understanding of their own team’s culture.
While SARU have highlighted the benefits of playing in Europe in a similar timezone to South Africa’s, long haul flights are still on the cards for the SA teams. The PRO14 sides have slowly become accustomed to playing in the republic but it’s a much tougher ask travelling from Ireland to South Africa, for example, than it is going from Ireland to Italy, and taking the South African representation up from two teams to four will force the PRO14 sides to spend an extra week miles away from home every year.
The top PRO14 sides have also sometimes settled on sending second-string sides to Africa, but that will be less feasible when a team is scheduled to play the Bulls in Pretoria and the Stormers in Cape Town, instead of playing a single match against the Kings.
In terms of the competition itself, what will the European sides gain from South Africa’s increased presence?
The PRO14, which started out as a competition involving just Scotland and Wales, has grown steadily since its inception in 1999. Just two years after the competition began, Ireland joined the charge – and Italy came on board 10 years later. Much like Super Rugby in the Southern Hemisphere, however, there are questions over whether the increase in size has actually increased the competition’s quality.
Ireland have dominated proceedings, with Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht securing almost two-thirds of the titles between them.
If South Africa’s teams of old were being added into the competition then they might be able to bring up the standard, but the weak rand has forced many South African players to relocate to England, France and Japan, which has naturally brought down the standard of the current Super Rugby sides.
Perhaps there’ll be more money on offer by joining the PRO14, which could entice the middle and upper tier of South African players to return to play for their home provinces – but that might be wishful thinking.
NZ and Australia will of course lose any South African involvement in Super Rugby – which was on the cards anyway. All Blacks coaches of the past have regularly spoken of how playing South African teams throughout the season has strengthened the Kiwis come the international season. The likes of the Bulls and Stormers play a style of rugby much more similar to England than any teams in Australasia, and with those regular fixtures off the table, it will interesting to see how the All Blacks and Wallabies fair when they come up against the Northern superpowers during test season.
From a viewer’s perspective, however, New Zealand and Australian fans probably won’t be too fussed to see the back end of South Africa.
As Super Rugby Aotearoa confirmed, Kiwis love watching the New Zealand teams play one another. The viewership figures out of Australia weren’t so convincing, but a trans-Tasman competition will hopefully find a happy balance between high-intensity derbies and some much-needed diversity of matches.
Certainly, the South African teams added a different style of play to Super Rugby, but that was never enough to entice viewers outside of the republic to set up shop in the early hours of the morning to watch rugby.
Passionate fans in NZ and Australia might watch their own teams when they’re touring and a few rugby nuts would tune in to watch their local teams travel to South Africa, but how many New Zealanders and Australians got excited about two South African sides banging their heads together desperately early on a Saturday or Sunday morning?
With SA out of the competition, fans could conceivably stake out for every match of whatever competition that unfolds without firing a missile through their own sleep schedule.
That goes equally for South African fans, who will now be able to watch away games at the same time of day as home matches.
Unless, of course, they’re fans of the Cheetahs or Kings – who are again finding themselves on the outer.
The Cheetahs, having played one season of Super 12 in 1997, joined the competition fulltime in 2006. 12 years later, they again found themselves without a berth in Super Rugby and were forced to relocate to the PRO12.
The Kings, meanwhile, have always courted controversy. Having joined Super Rugby in 2013 for a one-off campaign before becoming a permanent fixture in 2016, they were then booted from the competition just two years later.
While the Kings’ financials had effectively pulled the pin on the franchise for the foreseeable future anyway, the Cheetahs have been buckling down and preparing to re-join the PRO14 when the borders re-open. With the current four Super Rugby sides now heading north, the Cheetahs are again getting culled in favour of South Africa’s traditional teams – and there really leaves them with nowhere to go.
Supposedly the Cheetahs could join a small international competition involving sides from NZ, Australia, Argentina and Japan (which sounds awfully familiar), but that sounds like wishful thinking as opposed to anything tangible.
While the Jaguares aren’t a South African team, South Africa’s move to Europe for club rugby could also spell the end of the only Argentinian Super Rugby side, who will likely have no luck re-joining Australia and New Zealand for any meaningful week-in, week-out competition. More likely, the Super Liga Americana de Rugby will take on more prominence in South America – though it’s probably fair to assume that most of Argentina’s top players will return to Europe, where all the money is.
The impact of relocating the Bulls, Stormers, Sharks and Lions to the PRO14 will have an impact far extending outside of South Africa and Europe and only years down the line will we really be able to assess who’s gained the most – and who’s lost the most – from the re-shaping of global club rugby.
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