This past week has been a refreshing reminder of everything I love about rugby. On my way back to Japan, I stopped off in Perth to help Robbie Deans coach a World XV invitational side to play against the Western Force in a Rapid Rugby exhibition match.
The team is drawn from players all over the world and guys from different backgrounds, some who speak different languages, have had to come together quickly. In essence, everything you spend a preseason trying to get installed with a provincial side we’ve had to try and do in a handful of sessions.
It’s really reminded me why I started coaching all the way back in 1982 because the one thing that all these players have in common is they want to enjoy their rugby.
There are a few former All Blacks and then other youngsters who are just coming through the ranks. So we’ve got some guys who have never played Super Rugby training with Andy Ellis, Corey Flynn and Wyatt Crockett. The thing that has bonded them instantly is that they all love rugby, and they all love what rugby is about – the camaraderie, getting back up when you’re knocked down, and digging deep to motivate your teammates even though they’ve only been training together for a few days.
That’s what rugby is all about, and it’s something the sport has got to hang onto.
Looking at the announcement that the Sunwolves will be axed from Super Rugby in 2021 got me thinking that maybe the decision-makers have come to the realisation that the product we had is the one we want to keep.
Japan loves rugby and that’s why they wanted a bigger stage to raise the profile of the sport there through Super Rugby. A team in Asia in a conference system might have sounded like a good idea at the time but, as we’ve seen, it hasn’t really worked.
The main reason administrators took rugby down that road was because they thought there was money to be made. Rugby was chasing a foothold in the Asian market and now, six months before the first Rugby World Cup in Asia, we’ve got the announced termination of the only Super Rugby side on the continent.
Because of the size of the potential market, rugby has been clamouring to get into Asia to sell jerseys and memorabilia, just like Toulon tried to do by signing Japan fullback Ayumu Goromaru a few years ago.
But what the Sunwolves model has show is that it doesn’t work like that. The Japanese need to develop their own regional rugby market and produce more home-grown heroes before trying to step up to Super Rugby.
As I said in my last column, reaching bigger markets is the driving force behind World Rugby’s eagerness to launch a global league. The Sunwolves’ fate should raise a big, red flag. It’s not as simple as just chasing money, because the chase changes the product.
If they go ahead with the global league, rugby will end up with a soccer model where players earn most of their money playing club rugby for private owners all over the world at the expense of the integrity, intensity and mystique of Test rugby.
Some people say that will never happen, but that’s what they said in the mid-90s when concerns were raised about Super Rugby eating away provincial rugby.
Super Rugby started with the best provincial teams playing each other – it was Transvaal versus Otago, and Natal versus Queensland – and then they introduced franchises. These days a Super Rugby contract is more important than a provincial contract, and Super Rugby is far more important than the Currie Cup.
Where does it end if rugby keeps getting bigger and bigger? And are we happy with a future where Test matches become more of an exhibition than a do-or-die battle for national pride? Is the money and the market more important than the product?
As a die-hard, old-school guy, I fear that we’re going to lose what this great game is all about. It’s a sport that uniquely includes players of all shapes and sizes, and a game that has clear values on and off the field.
It’s encouraging that Sanzaar has seen that the current model isn’t working and they’ve had the guts to reverse the changes to bring a round robin format back to Super Rugby.
Who’s to say we don’t end up going all the way back to the best provincial teams qualifying for Super Rugby? That model certainly worked for the quality of the product.