There was an anxious moment a few days back when I thought I had left my Newlands parking tickets on the dashboard of my car at a shopping centre. It passed quickly though when it dawned on me that the tickets were safe – who would want them?
Someone sitting near the Newlands press box counted 65 empty hospitality suites. This during a match between the Stormers and Chiefs, the two teams that had provided the stadium with its apex moment of last season. Add to that the fuss made when 30 000 people pitched at Super Rugby’s most historically populous stadium for the north/south derby, which used to be a certain 50 000 sell-out, and you know rugby bosses face a struggle in their quest to sustain interest in the product.
Forgive me though for not agreeing with those who keep singing the epitaph of Super Rugby while seeing promise of a new dawn for South Africa in the European competitions. Of course, there is money to be made in Europe and it is money that makes the world go around, but that does not mean paying patrons are suddenly going to find rugby interesting again because it is the Scarlets coming to Newlands and not the Crusaders.
It might make the unions money through television revenue, but I am referring here to putting bums on seats, getting back that old atmosphere and vibe in the match venues. Somehow it is difficult to imagine Kings Park filling all the empty seats with people who suddenly get switched back onto rugby because they want to watch teams from quaint Welsh coal-mining villages.
What going to Europe won’t do is cure the real problems that are shrinking the interest in the game, such as an over-complicated law book, those interminable stoppages for the TMO and referees to consult and play videos, the mess that is often the scrums, not to mention the way the way the sport is becoming increasingly over-sanitised in the quest to make it safer.
There may be more money in Europe because of the exchange rate, but the money is apparently shrinking there too, with most of the clubs facing financial challenges, and let’s not forget that the French club game is propped up by billionaire club owners. Rugby is not just in trouble in the Sanzaar nations.
There has been some excitement locally about the European Champions Cup from those who watched the final on television and were impressed with the atmosphere and turn-out. A crowd of 52 000 watched Leinster beat Racing 92 in Bilboa. But that was the biggest of the season in the competition and was not a reflection of the support the rest of the competition got. The lowest attendance was 2 600, and in PRO14 it was 1000 (no, that was not for a Kings game).
What we need to be cognisant of is that the neutral venue for the competition’s deciding game was known before the season started, and I know a Munster supporter who booked long ago in the hope their team would be there. You can do that if you earn and live in Europe.
Getting the Super Rugby final to work is more challenging because of the distances that need to be travelled. Having a two-week break between the semi-final and final would take some of the travel factor out of the equation for teams that have to undertake the debilitating flight across multiple time zones.
To say that the European final seems to be bigger than the Super Rugby final is a perception that can be challenged. The 2007 Super Rugby final in Durban was one of the biggest rugby occasions I have been to. And the 2015 final between Hurricanes and the Highlanders also looked like an epic occasion. Significantly, both those games were derbies. There was no travel factor, either for the teams or their fans. Too many Super Rugby finals are spoiled by the travel that weighs so heavily against the visiting team.
A two week build-up to the showpiece Super Rugby event, which the final should be, would be possible if the organisers of Super Rugby come to recognise what the South African administration appears to have acknowledged with the great decision to truncate the Currie Cup into two months and play it over a single round – less is more.
Super Rugby worked when it was the Super 12 and we are hearing that a return to that system is favoured by many of the Sanzaar brains-trust for after 2019. It would be an uncomplicated system and format, but it would entail South Africa dropping one team so that Argentina can continue to be accommodated (say goodbye to Japan). The ‘relegated’ South African franchise would go to Europe and this country would then be lucky enough to both have its cake and eat it.
Yes, I understand the convenience of Europe, such as the same time zone, the overnight flights, no jetlag etc. But isn’t that a bit like marrying the girl next door just because she lives next door?
New Zealand does lead the rugby world and the reason the northern hemisphere nations appear to be on an upswing in performance is because they are tapping into Kiwi innovation by employing New Zealand coaches. It would make sense to maintain a regional rugby relationship with the leading nation and keep a sizeable proportion of your bread in that basket.
Three big city unions (Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban) in Super Rugby and three smaller city unions (Pretoria, Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth) in Europe makes sense, though participation in Europe won’t solve the biggest problem of all, which is that people are switching off because there is just too much rugby.
The PRO14, which is where all South African teams would have to start off, currently has a fixture list that features 21 league games before the play-offs. The European Cup features another six league games plus the three match play-off phase. So that’s another nine games. Add it all up and it comes out at a 32- game competitive season.
The consequence of playing in Europe could well be that you have to contract a much bigger squad, which is expensive and partly off-sets the financial windfall our European participants will be anticipating. Make no mistake, Europe should be embraced, despite the complications that stop it short of being the no-brainer many think it is.
If we can have the cake and eat it, let’s do that.