Comment: Super Rugby needs to cut three teams

Date published: January 19 2017

If the 2016 season was any indication, now is the time to reform the Super Rugby format. If SANZAAR fails to do so, rugby in the Southern Hemisphere will continue to suffer.

This is not a new argument. Purists have been nagging governing bodies in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand (the three original SANZAAR partners now joined by Japan and Argentina) to scale back on the amount of teams playing in the competition for years.

However, those calls have fallen on deaf ears time and again as the tournament just kept on growing. It started with 10 teams, grew to 12, jumped to 14, became 15 and now we have a situation where 18 teams from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Japan compete for one trophy.

So why is this renewed call to cut teams from the gravy train (or is it?) resurfacing again? What has changed?

In a word – everything.

There was a time when the so called big three (Wallabies, All Blacks and Springboks) were untouchable. On the field they were rugby powerhouses who dominated their Southern Hemisphere rivals and were always the favourites when it came to deciding who the World Cup contenders were.

Sure, England won the 2003 World Cup in grand fashion, but they fell apart so spectacularly afterwards that it was considered a once off. A flash-in-the-pan era if you will.

It was a time when comparisons between the standard and quality of Super Rugby versus the Premiership, Top 14 and PRO12 always seemed to favour the former.

Everything was rosy. Even when hosting the Southern Hemisphere giants on annual end-of-year tours, England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland struggled to beat the Springboks, All Blacks and Wallabies on a regular basis.

That all changed in 2016 and the main reason for that is the fact that the player drain in the Southern Hemisphere has never been greater. It has depleted the player depth in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, with the former two especially feeling the effects of more and more top players leaving to play their trade in Europe.

It's the era we live in and unless the governing bodies in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, but especially France, introduce stricter rules about the amount of foreigners playing in their leagues, it won't change.

And it's not just a case of those leagues luring the best international players to their shores. There are a host of mediocre players playing in Europe, many of them after realising they were never going to play for their country. That means it's not just the world class players like Duane Vermeulen or Kurtley Beale who are being snatched away, but players who actually provide the depth South Africa and New Zealand are famous for.

Two prime examples of that is the recent signings of Aaron Cruden to Montpellier and Cheslin Kolbe to Toulouse.

Australia have never had player depth which makes the fact that they have five teams in Super Rugby all the more perplexing.

Rugby is more professional in the Northern Hemisphere with their model of private ownership of clubs, and until the same happens in the SANZAR countries they will continue to battle to keep their players.

Which brings us back to the Super Rugby format. It's not working. It's confusing. It has to go.

Forget the fact that a team doesn't play every other team at least once. Yes, it's unbalanced, but the biggest issue with Super Rugby is the congested fixture list and lack of quality.

The competition has become diluted and the player drain to the north has contributed significantly.

South Africa does not have the player depth to field six teams anymore. Some might argue they never have and they would be correct. Australia has even less player depth and for such a small population, where rugby is the third or fourth biggest sport, to have five teams just doesn't make sense.

New Zealand are the exception to a degree and should be allowed to keep their four teams, while Japan and Argentina should stay involved with the Sunwolves and Jaguares respectively.

So what would the benefits of a reformed Super Rugby tournament with fewer teams be?

For starters, it would shorten the season and ensure the competition ends before the annual June internationals. Less teams should also improve the quality of the games since the limited talent pool of players will be more evenly spread across fewer teams.

Hopefully, it will also lead to an increase in television audiences and lighten the financial load of bodies like the South African Rugby Union, of whom too many teams are dependent for money to keep them afloat.

So which teams should get the cut? It would normally depend when the question is asked. For example, the Lions would probably be on the list, but there has been a resurgence at the Johannesburg union over the last few years which saw them reach the final in 2016.

Therefore, we should look at perennial underperformers who historically have struggled to make a positive impact on the tournament.

The three main contenders are the Southern Kings, the Western Force and the Cheetahs. 

Of the three, the Cheetahs have finished the highest, ending fifth in 2013 and thereby qualifying for the play-offs. The best the Force have done is finish seventh on a couple of occasions, while the Kings, however noble and politically correct the idea for them to be a part of this is, are nowhere near ready to participate in Super Rugby.

Let's start with the Cheetahs. The current Currie Cup champions have always been competitive in the domestic competition, but simply don't have the money to keep their best players or the player depth to carry them in case of injuries.

Year in and year out their best players are lured to one of the bigger unions or go overseas. So while they produce very talented players, they rarely get to keep hold of them. The Cheetahs lack quality players who can become potential Springboks and the attendance figures for games are poor, although that can be said for many other teams in the competition.

Cutting the Cheetahs from Super Rugby would be sad, but there is no place for sentimentality in the professional era.

The Force are in a similar position. They have too few quality players and have been upstaged by the Rebels in recent seasons, proving that they simply do not belong in Super Rugby. They also struggle with drawing crowds more than most other teams and their participation is depleting the already limited resources in Australia.

Finally, the Kings, whose introduction to Super Rugby was basically forced on SARU in exchange for the government greenlighting a World Cup bid, among other things.

At the core, the idea to give the Eastern Cape a rugby franchise who can compete in Super Rugby is a noble one and not without merit, considering they have the highest concentration of black players in the country.

However, the whole process has been a farce. The union has been the victim of very poor management and has largely been used as a political pawn. It's a sad state of affairs for the region, but the bottom line is SARU simply can't afford to continue to pump money into the union with diminishing returns.

Will any of those teams be dropped from the competition anytime soon? Probably not. But then SANZAAR should be prepared to face the consequences.

by Kobus Pretorius