In a post-coronavirus world, where does the future of Argentine rugby lie?
That’s the question being asked by those in the South American powerhouse nation as news filters out about the prospect of the Jaguares being left behind in Super Rugby.
The COVID-19 outbreak has not only forced the 2020 Super Rugby season to come to an abrupt halt, but it’s brought on discussions about a competition overhaul.
Support has grown in recent times for the two nations to join forces and create a trans-Tasman competition, which could also feature more teams from throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
Despite the Sunwolves’ unpopular exit from Super Rugby, alternative competition models have been proposed by prominent rugby figures in both New Zealand and Australia that features a Japanese presence of some kind.
Most recently, All Blacks veteran Sam Whitelock suggested the involvement of the best clubs from the star-studded Top League, which echoes the sentiments of Wallabies great Tim Horan.
The two-time World Cup-winning Australian went one step further, calling for the inclusion of sides from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga to add a Pacific element to the competition.
As Australia and New Zealand weigh up a more locally-based future in pursuit of increasing playing quality and fan engagement, murmurings persist of a cross-hemisphere switch by South African clubs.
Being in line with European time zones and easier access to the UK, Ireland and Italy would act as a key catalyst for a move away from New Zealand and Australia for South Africa’s franchises.
“We have always been very interested in South Africa. We like them and see them as a key part of our future,” PRO14 chief executive Martin Anayi told WalesOnline last week.
“The tournament works well at the moment but could work better if you add teams to it. So that’s one avenue potentially.”
All these options bode well for the futures of the three original SANZAAR unions, but it leaves Argentina, and particularly the Jaguares, in a realm of uncertainty.
In a recent interview with ESPN, Jaguares midfielder Jeronimo de la Fuente revealed the Argentine Rugby Union (UAR) have told players at the franchise that they are free to explore their options overseas.
As the sole Argentine club in Super Rugby, coronavirus-enforced travel restrictions have nullified the Jaguares’ playing schedule for the remainder of the year.
Factor in their exclusion from conversations within New Zealand and Australian about an Asia-Pacific competition and South Africa’s imminent excursion into Europe, and the Jaguares are left bare of options of where to go and what to do beyond 2020.
There is hope in that Argentina are tied into SANZAAR’s upcoming broadcast deal that runs from 2021 to 2025, which features a 14-team Super Rugby competition including the Jaguares.
However, the economic and travel implications that have come with the COVID-19 pandemic could alter that course of action.
The suspension of Super Rugby in March, which has left us with almost three months without any rugby, has also allowed for conversations to take place about how the competition can be improved following its gradual decline in quality and interest.
With an over-saturation of playing talent and unappealing time zones across the board just some of the issues at the crux of Super Rugby’s downfall, those discussions have led to the aforementioned solutions for New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.
Their exits would presumably be the beginning of an avalanche of player departures in what would be a significant blow to Argentinian and Southern Hemisphere rugby.
For a team that has proven its worth in one of the world’s premier club competitions by continually climbing up the table year-on-year since their inception in 2016 to reach the final of last year’s event, this would be a disappointing way to bow out.
The potential and improvements they have shown over the past five seasons have been reflected in their finishing positions in each passing year.
A 13th-place finish in their debut campaign was bettered by three positions in 2017, and the year after that, they made their first appearance in the play-offs after coming in at seventh spot.
An inspired run to the final left them as runners-up of Super Rugby 2019, and although their brief effort this season wasn’t as glittering, the Jaguares last year showcased how Argentine rugby have the potential to be a force to be reckoned with.
Nine wins away from home in their last 10 matches against Australasian opposition – half of which were Kiwi teams – is further evidence of their ability to foot it at the elite level against the best sides.
Without regular exposure to clubs from any of the three best SANZAAR nations, the quality of competition the Jaguares are exposed to quickly diminishes.
A lack of competition creates an outflux of players abroad, and if that’s what eventuates, then Argentina is effectively back to where they were initially – a nation without a prominent professional club, instead reliant on the services of players from around the globe.
While the national side could still flourish with that set-up, as they did in 2007 and 2015 and as South Africa did en route to the World Cup title last year, the disestablishment of the Jaguares would be a hindrance to the domestic game in Argentina.
The franchise’s existence offers a pathway to professionalism – which is scarce in Argentine rugby – for players both in the country and across South America, and gives them an opportunity to test themselves against some of the planet’s best players.
Take that away, and rugby in Argentina would be taking a hefty step backwards from building on the work that has made the country an established tier one nation.
Perhaps the Jaguares could be preserved in an Americas club format, where they compete against teams from Major League Rugby, a competition that is beginning to blossom in the United States and Canada.
But, even if they dissolved into two professional clubs to create a more competitive league and more avenues into the professional ranks for rising Argentine players, transitioning from Super Rugby to MLR would be a decidedly big drop in quality of competition.
Closer to home, induction into the newly-instated Superliga Americana de Rugby – a six-team South American competition involving an Argentine club called Ceibos based in Cordoba – could be an option to keep the organisation alive.
However, the quality of rugby in the league that spans across Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay would be even less competitive than that of the MLR.
Full-fledged involvement in the Currie Cup could also come into consideration, with the Jaguares XV – the franchise’s development team – plying their trade in the Currie Cup First Division last year.
The second-string Jaguares outfit dominated proceedings in the competition, running away as undefeated champions with nine wins from as many games and a points difference of +364 at the end of the seven-match round-robin.
Promotion into the Currie Cup Premier Division would be an appropriate measure to accomodate a full-strength Jaguares team, but travel between Argentina and South Africa would become rigorous, while fully basing themselves in the Republic would put them at a disadvantage.
Another alternative could be the unlikely inclusion in the potential Asia-Pacific competition being discussed in New Zealand and Australia.
This would maintain an Argentine presence at an elite level, but, despite the on-field value the Jaguares would add to such a competition, the arduous travel from South America to places like Japan and Australia are exactly what the latter nations are trying to avoid.
International travel bans might also still be in place, and the off-putting time zone difference would, in all likelihood, prove to be too big of a hurdle to overcome.
So, the question remains where does the future of Argentine rugby lie?
At this point, it’s anyone’s guess, but one thing is for sure – if the Jaguares left behind by New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, it would be to the detriment of the domestic and continental game in Argentina and South America.
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