SA Rugby is in talks with organisers of ‘international competitions’ in a bid to keep all six major rugby franchises. James Harrington argues the plan is doomed to fail.
Did you hear the one about the South African Super Rugby rejects who decided to play in another tournament?
That is not the opening line to a joke, even a bad one. At least, not intentionally.
SA Rugby President Mark Alexander has claimed that the two as-yet officially undetermined franchises that are to be axed from Super Rugby could join other competitions from 2018.
He said: “We do not want to condemn them [the two axed Super Rugby teams] to the wilderness. So, if all goes well, all [six] teams will participate in an international tournament.”
Alexander was coy about where, he hoped, the axed sides would end up playing – he said that talks were ongoing with the organisers of two competitions. But the favourite among the ‘other competitions’ to open its arms to a couple of stray South African sides would be the ambitious four-nation Pro 12 – which is reportedly also looking at expansion opportunities in USA and Canada.
However, concerns over stadia and potential support means looking across the Atlantic to America offers only uncertainty – especially given the PRO Rugby league’s first-season… ahem… problems.
There would be no such trouble with South Africa. No one has to build rugby from scratch in the Rainbow Nation and hope fans will come.
But that misses the point. Or, more accurately, it misses several points – not least the fact that the fans actually may not come to see a competition they have no particular relationship with.
There would, for example, be problems with player recruitment. The SANZAAR broadcast deal says that SA Rugby must ensure that the best players based in South Africa play in Super Rugby.
To honour that agreement would leave the Pro 12 – or the other international competition – picking up the leftovers. Which wouldn’t go down well. Besides, players would have to choose their competition – Super Rugby or the other one. It would be an unenviable situation. And it would be unbalanced.
Some commentators in the southern hemisphere believe that the Pro 12 is Europe’s third domestic competition behind the English Premiership and French Top 14, both of which are self-contained national tournaments. That’s tough on a league that supplied three of the eight Champions Cup quarter-finalists; and the same number of last-eight teams in the Challenge Cup.
Then, there’s the small matter of timing. Pro 12 rugby runs from September to May. Which is incompatible with both Super Rugby and the Currie Cup. North is north, and south is south and never the rugby twain shall meet, and all that.
Neither the Pro 12 or SA Rugby are likely to give ground on their competition schedules. And neither side will be happy with weakened sides playing in their tournament to appease the other. Nor would, understandably, the fans – who, it appears, may be expected to pay to watch sub-par rugby.
Then, there’s the whole geography thing. The Pro 12 is a neatly encased four-nation, three-hour flight maximum competition. Sides can easily play an away match one week and at home the next. The competition is not set up for the distances involved in incorporating sides from South Africa.
Clearly, Alexander hadn’t read the memo from CEO Jurie Roux – who only last month said that rugby in South Africa lacked the strength and quality to justify six franchises.
He said, then: “We are now at a time where the economic reality of this country, the rugby economic reality of this country, says we cannot sustain six franchises.”
That’s the inconvenient truth Alexander, rather like King Canute of old English history, is trying to hold back by force of post-truth denial alone. Unlike King Canute – who was proving a point to an over-creepy lackey when he failed to stop the tide from coming in – Alexander may even believe his platitudes.
Because that’s about all they can be. If South Africa cannot afford six Super Rugby franchises, it cannot afford four Super Rugby franchises and two Pro 12 ones.