Send Bulls to Europe

Gavin Rich

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.

- Gavin Rich

Let's chat

  • Herman Schroder

    Some good points made here Gavin and the scenario you mention may well be feasible. I always had the notion that SR should use a qualification process each year. By this I mean the countries involved should as part of the SR process play their derby games in a double round with the top two qualifying for the next phase by playing their equivalents in Auss and NZ. The qualifying phase in SA could double up as our very own Currie Cup competition with four or five teams. The CC which has been a poor imitation of it’s former self in it’s watered down state and the new system should see the crowds streaming back with potentially two trophies to play for.

    The second leg of the SR competition of six or eight teams ( Argentina and Japan added ? ) could be played on a home and away basis with the overall winner being the top finisher on the table. I have long believed that QF’s especially and even semi finals are unnecessary. In a hard fought competition the permutations and possibilities especially in the closing stages quite easily increase crowd interest over more games which helps revenue for all concerned.

    In any case the current situation where the team finishing a poor lowly eighth on the log could remarkably win the competition and they are then crowned champs of SR ? Especially these days where the rules and the referees seen to have the final say on the eventual outcome in many cases. The Crusaders / Waratah’s clash last weekend, where no less than three diabolical errors by the officials resulted in a Crusaders victory a case in point. Anyway that’s my tuppence ha’ppeny’s worth for the time being. Cheers.

  • Rant

    From a South African point of view it makes more sense splitting our teams 50/50 between North and South.

    North: The lure of the pound or euro is just too much for our elite players. This then potentially closes the door on Springbok selection. By having 3 teams plying their trade in the Northern competitions, we could offset this loss by either the players committing to SA franchises, or still be in the coaches weekly review as he must watch our teams in those matches. Also, this could help our players improve as they are learning additional styles from the North which is improving at a far higher rate than back in SA.

    South: Well, we simply have to keep pace with the Kiwis, Argies and Aussies. The Sharks have been excellent against Kiwi opposition, which only helps the Boks in the long run. By continuing to play in this comp we ensure that we push our players to hopefully make the Boks stronger.

    In summary, I agree with the article wholeheartedly. The issue is how we deal with the promotion/relegation aspects. Is SR sen as the superior product? Well, it simply must be due to New Zealand dominating world rugby. However, we could be in a position where our Pro14 teams are actually earning more money due to various rights/advertising etc which is not as lucrative in SR. Does that mean the Pro14 becomes the superior financial product thus we should have our best teams there?

    Now that is the real debate.

    • John Comyn

      The question I ask myself is would I like to see my team winning some silverware or am I happy to watch them lose every 2nd week like I have been for the last 20 years. Playing Pro14 does not guarantee silverware but, given the travel and the format of S15, at least the playing field is level.

    • Rant

      As for the issues with crowd attendance. I don’t live in SA but I have heard the tickets prices are too expensive to just watch our teams lose too often against Kiwi’s. If that is the case, then the best way to get more bums on seats is to make tickets more affordable, get our teams winning even if that means the Bok coach steps in to upskill our franchise coaches and give us something to enjoy at matches. The atmosphere at even the lower matches here in England are quite good. I often go to Twickenham or the Stoop to watch premiership matches as the atmosphere is enjoyable.

      But most importantly, let’s start winning big trophies again. If we have several teams, like NZ, vying for top spot, then I am sure the interest will be there. Likewise if we are winning the Pro 14.

      Improve coaching, because we have loads of extremely gifted kids in SA, and far too many are turning out for other countries and becoming their best players (CJ Stander, who my Irish mates keep thanking me for) and even premiership folk heroes (Schalk Brits, Ashley Johnson, Willie Le Roux, Faf de Klerk).

  • Ulrich

    You could then incentivise players to stay a bit by mandating 2 seasons of SR and 2 seasons with a SA franchise playing in the NH. Thereafter they may move north and still be eligible.

    That should give the Bok coach enough time to assess a player and draft him into the Bok squad.

    If a player chooses to leave before completing 4 seasons at home he is ineligible. Surely a 20 year old can wait for years before going for the money although that may not be the case at all.

    • Rant

      Very interesting concept indeed. This could actually work. 4 years is enough time to test and develop a player and provide enough experience to be a huge factor. Players Like Etzebeth, Pollard, etc although young have vast experience and in this scenario could go abroad and round their games, much like Percy and Os did.

  • John Comyn

    Gavin – all valid points. I would also like to see us revert back to S12. What you don’t mention, and what I think is the biggest factor for poor attendance, is our sides have under performed in S Rugby for so long now it’s just not fun watching anymore. (at the stadium or on TV) Simply put we are not competitive. I have been a seriously die-hard Stormers supporter since the competition began. I am now asking myself do I want to watch the Stormers play and go through the same angst every Saturday. It just puts me in a bad mood and makes me grumpy. We still love our rugby here in SA we just don’t like losing all the friggen time!

    • Herman Schroder

      Hi John. Guess who just started flexing his ‘muscles’ on AOR. lol. As you may or may not know I was blocked by SS for apparently being a ‘troll’ for the past 9 plus months. When I finally got through to their Managing Editor stating my case in no uncertain terms including their intolerance of robust debate and their tolerance of the huge problems endemic in SA rugby, I was ignored. But it is all moot now as they have removed the comments section from their sites anyway due to their restructuring and streamlining processes.They now have their heads firmly stuck in the sand.

      But that is side issue in the greater scheme of things. I just need to make a small ‘correction’ to your post and that is your lumping of the Lions with the other under performers of the past few years, They did after all make two SR finals in an 18 team competition breaking many records along the way and matching the NZ sides game for game. No mean feat I’m sure you agree.

      As for the Stormers well as you may or may not know I bailed on them 5 years ago thanks to Toetie and the WP Administrators, if you can call them that. Fleck unfortunately is not up for the job having spent far too much time with Coetzee and their current position on the log ( 11th out of 15 teams ) is indicative of this. No wonder you are frustrated my good man, who can blame you. Cheers.

  • Rico van Wyk

    Too much rugby down our throat’s killed the game…..not to talk about the money factor….

  • JRVJ

    1. As a Jags fan, it’s gratifying that the SAffa press takes it for granted that they are part of SR’s solution.

    2. I fail to understand how having the same number of franchises, but with some in Europe, will improve the level of SA squads.

    I understand that this is partially driven by market pressures, but the idea of having the Cheetahs and the Kings in the Top 14 (and according to this article, the Bulls in Top 14, too), means that their better players don’t re-enforce the Lions, Sharks, Bulls and Stormers.

    I usually don’t think much of the Aussies decisions, but long term, the culling off of the W. Force helped to get some better players to the Melbourne Rebels, whose performance perchance has improved this year (mind you, the Aussies probably shouldn’t have more than 3 franchises, but that’s another discussion).

  • Barry Smith

    We have just seen Lyndon Bray give the South African Rugby community the middle fingure! He totally discounted complaints from Fleck, Small, Mitchell and Du Preeze and then as a gesture of pure arrogance changed the South American game to a Home town ref, just to make sure that we got it absolutely clear! And you would like me to take the family to the next match, spend R1500 in the process, just to watch another match manipulated by one of the Australasian officials. How many times have we complained about the unbalanced carding and why our chaps always seem to get two or three weeks more than those down under! What do SA Rugby do about this, well as ever, absolutely nothing! So if you want the stadiums full, then quite simply we need to get Administrators that that vaguely have a pair and that stand their ground when our sides are confronted with what is no less than basic cheating- yes call it what I it is! Louis Luyt was a bit of a dog in my books, but hell, at least he had a pair and would not have tolerated the fiasco we currently face!

    • Herman Schroder

      Hi John. Guess who just started flexing his ‘muscles’ on AOR. lol. As you may or may not know I was blocked by SS for apparently being a ‘troll’ for the past 9 plus months. When I finally got through to their Managing Editor stating my case in no uncertain terms including their intolerance of robust debate and their tolerance of the huge problems endemic in SA rugby, I was ignored. But it is all moot now as they have removed the comments section from their sites anyway due to their restructuring and streamlining processes.They now have their heads firmly stuck in the sand.

      But that is side issue in the greater scheme of things. I just need to make a small ‘correction’ to your post and that is your lumping of the Lions with the other under performers of the past few years, They did after all make two SR finals in an 18 team competition breaking many records along the way and matching the NZ sides game for game. No mean feat I’m sure you agree.

      As for the Stormers well as you may or may not know I bailed on them 5 years ago thanks to Toetie and the WP Administrators, if you can call them that. Fleck unfortunately is not up for the job having spent far too much time with Coetzee and their current position on the log ( 11th out of 15 teams ) is indicative of this. No wonder you are frustrated my good man, who can blame you. Cheers.

  • allan danker

    don’t agree at all with the last comment that refs manipulate games.
    agree that far to much time is spent sending decisions to the tv ref.
    also refs are not blowing the scrum according to the laws.
    the game has become boring compared to many years ago when we had 7 backs against 7 backs..
    and the laws then were much similar to now.
    only a few changes have been made.
    and correctly some changes are for the protection of the players.

    • Barry Smith

      You’re arguing with yourself Allan. In your first sentence you say Refs don’t manipulate, then in your second sentence you say they don’t apply the scrum laws correctly, well that’s manipulation isn’t it! You need to have a look at the article on Super sport “Kiwis Magic” and the video clip of the Tahs verses Crusaders game. There are countless irregularities there, all strangely in favour of the home side. There are also two clips of off the ball issues, a tip tackle not blown and not since sited by match officials and a Tahs player taken out without the ball on the Crusaders try line, also not seen by the Ref and also not since sited. The scribe in that article used the words “magic” rather than “cheat” in a tongue in cheek fashion! We have complaint from all four SA Super Rugby coaches- are you telling me they all have it wrong?

  • Bill

    Why not play some of the playoff legs midweek, that way you can have the playoffs (3 games) over 4 weeks. Champions league football seems to get plenty interest mid week and I don’t see why rugby would be different for such a key game. 10 days between games would make a big difference to the travel factor.

    This extends the calendar length of the tournament but you can make that back by restricting group stages to less games by (a) going back to s12 (b) removing the local derby home and away. Save the latter for Currie Cup.

    Ultimately though we need our best players playing for our teams to bring back the fans. SARU needs to be creative and find a way to keep the top players in the country. If that means all 6 of our big teams play in Europe then so be it.

    Lions probably doubled their average crowd in the last few years thanks to building a team of ‘stars’. Watch them struggle to hold onto crowds now as JA poaching speeds up.

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