Super Rugby has entered the dark ages - and the future doesn't look any brighter
There has been a widespread acceptance in recent times that the Super Rugby product has gone downhill.
Whilst Australia was able to put up a good fight prior to Super Rugby’s initial expansion in 2006, results have been less convincing since introducing fourth and fifth teams in the country. The Western Force received the chop at the end of 2017, which has help concentrate Australia’s talent somewhat – but questions still remain over the country’s competitiveness.
South Africa have been having their own issues. The nation’s two expansion teams, the Cheetahs and the Kings, were also dropped from the tournament for the 2018 season but there has been a bigger problem which has inhibited the republic’s competitiveness: there has been an incredible outflow of players from the South Africa to Japan, France and the United Kingdom. South Africa simply doesn’t have the funds to keep their players local – not even the pull of the Springboks jersey could stymie the flow.
The comparative decreases in strength of Australia and South Africa have helped keep New Zealand teams at the top of the ladder in recent seasons, which has not been great for Super Rugby’s wider international appeal. In 2019, the Kiwi teams have struggled at times – but a big part of that seems to be down to the compulsory resting of All Blacks.
The Sunwolves’ introduction in 2016 brought with it much promise. Asia is one of rugby’s great untapped regions and there’s plenty of reason to believe that the Japanese national side could one day (in the distant future) compete with other tier-1 nations around the world – just look at how they bested South Africa at the last World Cup.
2016 also saw the Jaguares join the competition. From the get go, the Argentinian Rugby Union made it clear they wanted to be competitive in Super Rugby so they introduced a policy that prevented players from representing the Argentina national side unless they also played in Super Rugby. There is now discussion that the Jaguares are too strong and need to be split up into multiple teams – which is a great sign of how Argentina is progressing.
Sunwolves doomed from the start
Unlike Argentina and the Jaguares, the Japan Rugby Football Union imposed no restrictions on their national players. Although the Sunwolves did have some Japanese representatives in their squad in their first season, half the team was comprised of New Zealand, Australian and South African players who for one reason or another weren’t selected for their local teams.
The balance has shifted in the last couple of seasons such that the majority of the team are now not eligible for the Japanese squad. As a result, we’ve seen no major improvements in the strength of the Japanese national side but we’ve also failed to witness any consistent performances from the Sunwolves.
Since SANZAAR announced that the Sunwolves would be culled from Super Rugby after the 2020 season concludes, two topics of discussion have been on everyone’s lips.
First of all, Super Rugby should significantly improve in the short term. Dropping the weakest team from any competition is likely to see the quality improve, but culling the Sunwolves also means that Super Rugby can revert to the straight round-robin and finals system that was last used back in 2010.
The competition structure has been widely questioned by players and fans alike. Although the format has gone through various iterations since 2011, there’s been a general acceptance that too many derby games have hampered the competition. New Zealand teams were punished by having to play each other more regularly whilst fans over the four continents that Super Rugby spans questioned by some teams didn’t get to play each other in any given season. We won’t even bother touching on the absurd qualifying and finals system that’s in place.
The Sunwolves’ ejection will strengthen the quality and appeal of the competition in the short term. The second thing that everyone has been discussing, however, is how vanquishing the Sunwolves seems like a remarkably short-sighted approach to the issues that Super Rugby is facing.
Super Rugby has reached its apex
The tournament’s initial contraction in 2017 (when the Cheetahs, Kings and Western Force were dropped), coupled with the coming termination of the Sunwolves indicates that Super Rugby has reached its maximum size.
In 2021, Super Rugby will have the same number of teams competing as it did from 2006 to 2010. Does that mean that in 11 years, rugby in the Southern Hemisphere and Asia regions has not grown at all?
The South African market certainly seems unsustainable. You can argue that expansion came too fast in the republic, with three teams added between 2006 and 2016, but we’ve now reached the point where South Africa have the same number of teams competing today as they did way back when Super Rugby launched in 1996.
Of course, New Zealand has remained at five teams for the lifetime of the competition – but the country’s franchises represent all of New Zealand’s provinces, which is not the case for South Africa. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see new teams introduced in South Africa now, and the teams that currently remain seem to be growing weaker each year courtesy of the country’s struggling economy.
Lack of resources leads to cutting off growth
Australia faces a similar issue to South Africa. The Western Force represented an area of Australia that had an excellent fan base and great development systems in place, but they were dropped in favour of keeping the Rebels, the Australia Rugby Union’s love child. A major part of Australia is now unrepresented in Super Rugby, but it was clear when the country had five teams that they simply did not have the player resources to support them all.
The Rebels have been performing reasonably well this year, but how many of their players are actually from the Victoria region? When the Force were cut, a huge number of their players (and their coach) migrated to Melbourne and are now propping up the team – alongside the likes of recent imports Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Matt Toomua. Does Melbourne actually have the systems in place to produce the players that will be needed to keep the Rebels sustainable in the long term?
The one nation where expansion has actually succeeded is Argentina, with the Jaguares on track to make the playoffs for the second time this year. This would make them the most successful expansion team in Super Rugby’s history, with the Cheetahs the only other expansion side to have made the playoffs before.
While the Jaguares are improving fast and there’s reason to believe that Argentina could support a second team in the future, it’s still too early to be introducing another team just yet. Argentina may well be one territory for long term growth – but expanding could sabotage all the work that’s already been done to grow the game.
This leaves Super Rugby with very few options for expanding internally.
If not now for Pacific Islands, then when?
The obvious territory that could add to the competition is the Pacific Islands. Seeing the crowd that turned up for this season’s Super Rugby game of the year between the Chiefs and the Crusaders in Fiji should have made any viewer excited. To be perfectly honest, however, it’s more depressing than anything else, because Super Rugby is never going to expand to the Pacific Islands.
There is simply no better time for it than now. The Pacific Island sides are not improving in any meaningful way. They achieve wins over the top teams every now and again – but they’ve been doing that for decades now. If anything, it’s more of a surprise to see Samoa or Fiji topple the likes of Wales and Scotland now than it has been in the past.
Funding is always going to be an issue for Pacific Island teams. There are plenty who believe that there are ways that Island teams could support themselves and that may well be true – but the powers that be have shut down any hope of a Super Rugby franchise being introduced to the Pacific Islands now, and finances are unlikely to change significantly in the next decade.
Fiji, Samoa and Tonga could add flair, power and excitement to Super Rugby but if the Super Rugby administrators believe that an Island franchise is not feasible now, then what’s going to change in the future?
The Sunwolves were a great opportunity for Japan to improve their standing in the rugby world but they’ve shot themselves in the foot by failing to put out a competitive side comprised of Japanese nationals.
South Africa wanted Japan out of Super Rugby for a number of reasons – not the least of which was the fact that Japan didn’t vote for the 2023 World Cup to be hosted in South Africa. The expulsion of the Sunwolves will likely set Japan rugby back to the state it was in well before their Super Rugby side were even introduced to the competition.
Super Rugby has reached its apex point. There’s little room for expansion unless you introduce a second-tier competition propped up by a rich benefactor or privatise the competition in other ways and introduce greater freedom of player movement – and neither of those options seem likely. South Africa are only getting weaker and questions remain over the strength of Australian sides. 2020 may see a more competitive competition for all concerned, but don’t expect the quality of rugby to improve in the future.
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