Loose Pass

Date published: April 4 2017

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the crisis in the south…

These are dark times for half of the southern hemisphere countries. While New Zealand’s franchises jump from strength to strength and the Jaguares continue to fly Argentina’s flag with pride, there is little doubt that rugby in South Africa and Australia is entering defining resilience-testing periods.

By the time the new global calendar kicks in in 2019, both countries could be facing crises grave enough to warrant another calendar rethink. It might be the only positive to come out of it all.

Australia first. New Zealand teams have now won all 11 clashes with Australian sides in 2017 and 33 of their past 36. Australia’s only non-derby success in 17 games this season came in round one.

At the weekend, the Waratahs and Rebels combined for a staggering 39 missed tackles in their first halves alone. Last week’s rumours that the Force would finally be put out to pasture (it’s becoming an annual rumour now) can’t have helped morale over there, while the Reds were gallant but not good enough against the Hurricanes.

All four sides leaked late tries, hinting at widespread fitness issues. Neither of the teams at home played in front of even two-thirds of a full house.

Back in the days when Australia had only three teams, they were pretty bloody good. Success was never far away, crowds were vibrant. The time did indeed seem right for an experiment.

But as one editorial put it recently: ‘There is no pinpoint moment but, there is no doubt that the process of deterioration accelerated after the ascension of the Western Force in 2006 and got worse still after the Melbourne Rebels came along in 2011. Was it because having two extra teams inevitably meant that teams were weaker because the best players were spread among five teams and not just three?’

Almost certainly – and the same goes for the fans. Cities in Australia are notoriously faithful to specific sporting codes and neither Perth (AFL) nor Melbourne (AFL and league) has managed to hook over sports fans from other codes to the new franchises. In Australian club rugby generally, a recent report – strongly rejected by the ARU – suggested that regular participation numbers in club rugby were on a par with those of ballroom dancing.

The ARU’s response to the report was withering (and the report’s numbers were pretty incredible), but also acknowledged a sharp drop in club XVs between 2014 and 2016. The average attendance at Australian Super Rugby games last year dropped below 14,000.

Not entirely by coincidence, ‘withering’ is how you might describe the state of the ARU’s finances as well. The union lost AU$ 6.3m in 2014 and AU$ 9.8m in 2015. 2016’s figures are unlikely to be any better.

It’s not going to inspire confidence in any late-career player who has to choose between being a Wallabies stalwart or taking a comfy retirement package somewhere in L’Ovalie, especially when he’s given a choice between potential European Cup glory or trying to hold together one of the leaking ships in Perth or Melbourne.

Removing the Force might not do much to help the malaise – there’s also been at least one editorial pointing out that the Rebels are far more of a waste of money as the city is such a competitive sports market.

But Australian rugby needs some major surgery and quickly. However painful it may be, Australia is at the point where any amount of pain would be worthwhile in order to facilitate a complete recovery.

And South Africa? If Australia’s woes can – generally – be put down to ambitious expansion plans that didn’t work out, South Africa’s woes can only be put down to some grotesque political meddling and mismanagement. The Kings should never have been, shouldn’t be now, should not remain, and should be the first team erased from existence.

The franchise has cost a fortune and the effects have been worse than anyone could have imagined. South Africa’s players are leaving in droves, fed up of decisions being taken on non-rugby criteria and of continued speculation over different franchises’ futures (the ongoing political scandals in the country also notwithstanding).

On the back of it all, the Springboks have endured their worst Test year of the professional era.

But the departure of Johan Ackermann – by a country mile the standout coach in the rainbow nation at the moment – to Gloucester next season is indicative of the disillusionment coursing through the rugby populace as rumours continue to circulate that two South African teams will be cut from Super Rugby next season, neither of which is set to be the Kings.

SARU could yet dig their heels in and insist that only one team be cut. Which means that if SANZAAR is to get its wish to drop three teams, Australia might have to chop two after all – and that’s not going to sit if the Kings are allowed to continue their preposterous existence.

The obvious course of action there is to cut one from each country and cut the Sunwolves too. But obvious and logical courses of action for international tournaments rarely tally with either TV contracts or domestic agendas, so you can probably consign that idea to the basket marked ‘if only’ – where it can nestle next to the idea that foresaw a Super 15 buoyed by the replacement of one of the non-performing Aussie teams with the Jaguares, back in the days when expansion was the talk of the town.

Super Rugby’s move to 18 teams has been a horror show. We’ve a tournament where nobody understands the format, with not enough good players and teams to cover it, with indistinct and faceless teams, which dilutes the competition at Test level and which is leading some nations and their fans into a rugby oblivion.

Change cannot come soon enough.

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens

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