Planet Rugby

Europe does not need 'Super' rugby

26th March 2014 09:53


dean mumm exeter lv cup northampton

Second tier? Exeter Chiefs

Last month, my colleague argued that the continued success of the Southern Hemisphere giants was down to Super Rugby's high level of quality and small number of teams. It was suggested that Europe needs a similar competition to compete with the SANZAR trio.

I don't agree.

By destroying traditions and weakening the weaker clubs, a European version of "Super Rugby" would only damage the game's growth.

Trying to whittle down the best of the European sides into a top league would mean that the top players, if wanting to still play at an elite level, would have to move to the Leicesters, Leinsters and Toulons of the world and leave their original club struggling without them. We see this already with top talent, but imagine it on a more destructive scale.

The principle of the best playing against the best isn't a bad one - it's why the Heineken Cup quarter-finals hold such great appeal. You cannot ask for a higher standard than Toulon taking on Leinster, or Munster hosting Toulouse.

But is it worth the price of hugely traditional rugby areas in Scotland, Wales and parts of Ireland and England dying out? A lack of top players/fixtures means fewer attendances, sponsors, financial backing and eventual collapse.

Transitioning from a struggling team to a dominant one without a boatload of funds to chuck on wages makes the transformation from strugglers to a success a lottery.

Teams that would be restricted to domestic competition only or allocated to a second division European league would simply never get out of there without top talent being recruited - and why go there when not playing against the best? Your shock victories, the ones that inspire stories and are loved by fans - Connacht over Toulouse being a nice example - would never happen. You just don't get that same thrill with 10,000 watching the Force play the Rebels.

Say, as proposed, you took the top six teams from each of the current leagues, that would leave the Italian sides, half of Wales and half of Scotland on the outside looking in.

In England, London Wasps wouldn't make the cut, nor would Exeter Chiefs - whose rise to the Premiership to competing in the Heineken Cup gives hope to every other club out there.

Exeter are also the only top-flight side flying the flag in the South West of England, so to cut them would damage the national sport as a whole. The same goes for Newcastle Falcons in the north, an area where expansion of the game is necessary and a second-rate team in a second-rated league would attract minimal interest.

In France there is already a vacuum of talent between the haves and the have-nots, so augmenting that through a filtered league structure will hardly lessen Philippe Saint-André's headaches over a lack of talent coming through in key positions.

Ostracising the weaker teams and countries only creates a small elite, not a globally strong sport, which has been rugby's aim since turning professional nearly twenty years ago. Sure, one of England or France might defeat the All Blacks, Ireland too, but no one else will and the continental game would suffer.

Expecting the sport to be played exactly the same on opposite sides of the world is perhaps naive.

The combination of player numbers and national devotion to rugby in New Zealand and South Africa is unrivalled. France and England might have higher player numbers, but rugby is not king there - not in the way school rugby matches are broadcast on television in the homes of the All Blacks and Springboks. Perhaps it's no coincidence that they are the world's top two sides.

Your average child in New Zealand is more likely to turn towards a rugby ball than a football, and developing those key skills are integral, but it's about more than that.

Sustained success in Test rugby is down to possessing all the key ingredients for success - enough talent, the culture, tactics and coaching staff. That's something Ireland and England are building towards now, and something Clive Woodward created for England back in 2003. England and Wales contested the IRB Junior World Championship final last year, not the Baby Boks or Baby Blacks.

Filtering down the rugby population into five zones per country has meant that Super Rugby more or less keeps everyone covered, unless you're a Kings fan who finally had a taste of the action in 2013 only to miss out this year.

Super Rugby is supposed to be the best of the best, but keeps expanding to let more and more teams in to give them a chance to play against the elite, which is exactly what we have in Europe now.

Next year there will be 17 sides in Super Rugby, including one from Argentina, who will no doubt arrive with plenty of passion and guts but are bound to fall short of the initial standard, like the Kings did last year. By 2015, three franchises will have been added in the last five years and there's nothing to say by 2020 there won't be even more, because everyone wants a fair chance. Europe gives you that now.

Long-term it's brilliant for los Pumas, but will produce an obvious knock on the overall quality of the competition. Yet it allows for more diversity and overall representation and everyone gets a fair crack.

Super Rugby is hugely entertaining and produces hundreds of memorable tries every year, but does it always feel authentic? Chipping away traditional cornerstones of the European game would arguably have the same effect.

There are admittedly more questions than answers, but chopping up Europe into tinier pieces isn't the solution.

by Ben Coles

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