Gavin Rich, writing for Business Day
Another new incarnation of the southern hemisphere Super Rugby competition was swept in at the weekend, but the revamped version is still far from perfect and another big change is anticipated for 2020.
That will be the year where what some are referring to the global season will come into being, with the June test window for incoming tours to the southern hemisphere being switched to July. That will allow Super Rugby to run uninterrupted rather than having to break at a critical stage of the competition like it does currently.
In the first decade of Super Rugby there was no break for the June internationals as under the initial 12 team format, the competition was completed by the end of May. While the intention is to continue Super Rugby into June from 2020, it is understood that there is growing support from top southern hemisphere decision makers for a return to the old Super 12 format. It makes sense.
The various expansions to the competition – first from 12 to 14, then 14 to 15 and finally to 18 – were driven by the needs of Australia and South Africa to have bigger representation in the competition, and more recently the commitment to the formal inclusion of Argentina.
But while it was understandable that there were unions that felt left out and the various national bodies couldn’t really be blamed for pushing the case for greater representation, each expansion made it harder for the teams to be accommodated in a fair, manageable and easily understood format. The strength versus strength concept also suffered, with some of the countries (Australia in particular), unable to provide enough playing depth to sustain five teams.
The latest change, which is effectively just a switch back to the format everyone was unhappy with before the competition expanded to 18, does not usher in a cure for all problems. The revamped format still doesn’t equate to a fair competition like the old Super 12, where every team played every other team in the league stage.
For example, the Sharks will not be playing the Crusaders or the Reds in the coming season. The Stormers won’t be playing the Brumbies or the Hurricanes. Some South African teams will play several games in New Zealand, others will play mostly Australian opposition on their away leg. How can that be deemed to be fair?
In the old Super 12 there was just one round of matches, something that may be looked at and adjusted by the organisers, as derby matches do satisfy the bottom line. They may not easily give up the conference system that sees teams from a country face their countrymen on a home and away basis during the competition season.
However, lowering the number of teams back to 12 will at least make it possible to ensure each team plays every other team at least once during the competition season. The difficult bit will be dropping three more teams, but it might not be as difficult as it may appear. The Sunwolves are on borrowed time anyway after not voting for South Africa in the recent World Cup vote, and South Africa losing another team is not necessarily the hot potato it might have been before the Cheetahs and the Kings started to play in the PRO14.
As it stands, the South African teams playing in the PRO14 are ineligible to play in the highly lucrative European Cup, which is the carrot for teams that finish on the top half of the PRO14 logs, but there is apparently an understanding that if one of them wins the competition, that will change.
The prospect of earning big money in Europe may explain why the Bulls were understood to be eager to ditch Super Rugby for the PRO14, and they may well be again when the time arrives to revamp Super Rugby once more.
The PRO14 hasn’t captured the imagination of the South African rugby public as yet, but then the Kings were horribly underprepared for the competition and the Cheetahs went in with expectations lowered by the fact that they had to go straight into the PRO14 from Super Rugby and the Currie Cup. Next year they will be better prepared and may pose a proper challenge for silverware.
If they do, it will change the way South Africans view the competition, as will the inclusion of a strong union/franchise like the Bulls.
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