The introduction of the Cheetahs and Southern Kings into Europe’s Pro12 competition next season, will be the beginning of the end of southern hemisphere rugby’s Sanzaar alliance in its current form.
Reports leaked that the deal has been done and this reporter has ascertained that not only are two South African teams set to join the tournament, but an equal split of broadcast rights have also been negotiated.
And that’s not all. Last week Sanzaar had an emergency meeting (via conference call) to try and unscramble the egg that is the culling of three teams, mainly to humour Australia.
The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) faces legal action from the Melbourne Rebels and possibly the Western Force if one of those teams is cut from Super Rugby at the end of the current season.
The difficulty for the ARU is that the deal was decided by Sanzaar before the ARU had fully worked it through with its franchises. SA Rugby went to the London meeting in April with a clear mandate and a planned course of action knowing two teams were likely to be on the chopping block. The ARU went with nothing but hope.
The upshot is that the ARU are now desperately trying to find a way to retain five teams to avoid an unseemly legal battle, even though Australian rugby cannot sustain four franchises, let alone five.
Which brings us back to the Pro12 (soon to be called the Pro14, or even Pro15). The Cheetahs and the Kings are not unhappy about developments because they will still earn good money from broadcast rights (paid in pounds), have less travel and probably a better chance of success.
It’s become such an attractive proposition that a third SA franchise, whose identity I know, but won’t mention, has indicated that it would be happy to abandon Sanzaar in favour of the Pro12 as well.
The fissures in Sanzaar are quickly developing into a cavernous void. South African franchises are coming round to the idea that they might be better served in a different competition, happy to leave New Zealand and Australia to entertain each other.
The argument that SA teams are better off playing against NZ teams because they are the benchmark of rugby excellence is only true because NZ teams are strong because of SA.
NZ rugby is propped up by the vast sums of television money earned via Sanzaar, which is underpinned by a strong TV viewership emanating from SA. Without it, NZ wouldn’t be able to afford to keep its top players and very soon a player brain drain would have a negative impact on their rugby as well.
In terms of SANZAAR, the battle lines are quite simple – NZ brings the best quality and SA brings the audience and therefore money. Australia brings very little.
A move into Europe by SA teams will damage Sanzaar’s equilibrium and have a huge impact on NZ and to a lesser extent, Australia.
But the deal is nearly done and SA’s first steps towards Europe are a reality. It’s only a matter of time before this move kills off the Sanzaar consortium as we know it. And for many, it’s not a moment too soon.