The decision to reduce the number of teams in Super Rugby from 18 to 15 teams has rightly been lauded in many quarters, but I am not sure it goes far enough.
Memories are short, and the past two seasons – where fans have been confused about formats and the whole Super Rugby system has just been way too complicated – have served to obscure the recall of the problems we had with the 15 team competition that we complained about for nearly a decade.
To refresh those memories, one of the key problem areas with the 15-team format was that it didn’t allow for the core element of fairness that should be required in a competition contested over a single round – that being that every team plays everyone else at least once.
Sanzaar have confirmed that while the new format has to be finalised still, the teams will be playing against only 12 of the 14 other teams. That’s not good enough in my view. And it’s not fair either.
If your main rival in the competition is not getting to play the Crusaders and Lions in a given year, for instance, and the teams you are missing out on facing are the Rebels and Sunwolves, does that sound fair? I think not.
But my misgivings on the reversion to a format we also weren’t happy with go way beyond the fairness of it. The problems with Super Rugby, aside from the obvious travel issues that might become even more acute now, are the length of the competition, and how that impacts on player welfare and, not least, on the sport as a whole in the respective competing countries.
Dropping the number of South African competing franchises to four from six makes sense across many levels. The franchises and SA Rugby can compete with the Euro and the Yen far easier if they have a more concentrated quality pool to work with. In effect it drops the number of players required for Super Rugby from 240 to 160.
That’s good because there was no way the country has 240 players of Super Rugby quality, and now the top players can be offered more money. Four competitive Super Rugby teams should win back the interest of the wider public and, as the Australians couldn’t sustain the number of teams they fielded either, it does away with the dead games – those that just don’t attract interest because we know the result before the match starts.
The problem though in the South African context is that someone is going to suffer, and there must be concern that the prolific Bloemfontein feeder-system is likely to become vulnerable if, as expected, the Cheetahs are one of the franchises to drop out.
Even down in the Eastern Cape it could be argued that while the interest in the Kings has been poor this year, and the inclusion of that franchise has not been a success, something does need to be done to incentivise the area that produces most of South Africa’s black talent.
What is really needed to safeguard the interests of those regions is to revive the strength and importance of the domestic game – something that would be possible if the Super Rugby season became more concentrated like it was for the first decade of the competition when it was the Super 12.
Back then the competition ended in the last week of May. That meant the players competing in Super Rugby who weren’t involved in the June internationals could recharge themselves in preparation for a proper Currie Cup that would last from the first week of July through to the end of October.
Ideally South African rugby should move towards a franchise system like that adopted long ago by local cricket. That would make it possible to have a high-quality, seven-franchise Currie Cup, and the likes of the Cheetahs (they’d have to absorb Giquas and Griffons for the Currie Cup) and the Kings (Eastern Province, Border and SWD), would have top rugby to focus on and attract sponsors to for a sizeable portion of the year.
Reverting to a 12-team competition would obviously not sit well with broadcasters and many other stakeholders who’d want a wider window, but a Super Rugby season that runs from March to May would cut down the high attrition rate that impacts on all the respective SANZAAR nations in the international season, and make for more energetic players and more energetic and fresher rugby.
Bottom line, it would be watchable and there’d probably be more intense focus on the tournament from the wider public than there is when the tournament starts in February and ends in August.