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FEATURE Grave questions loom for southern hemisphere nations in 2024

Grave questions loom for southern hemisphere nations in 2024
5 months ago

As it turned out, 2023 played out well for the southern hemisphere. Four teams from below the equator made it to the last eight of the World Cup, and despite predictions the semi-finals could be an all-Six Nations affair, it was the Rugby Championship trio of New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina who made it that far, alongside England, to suggest the north is not quite the dominant force which was being portrayed.

But no-one should be fooled into thinking the World Cup indicates the game is in rude health in the south. It’s not, and 2024 will be one of the most challenging years of the professional era.

There are issues bubbling everywhere, starting with Australia where there is an acute shortage of money, no Wallabies coach in place and an enormous job to be done in reconnecting the game with fans in a country where rival football codes such as the NRL and AFL are booming.

The relatively bleak financial position is at the core of nearly all of Australia’s problems.

Getty Images
Eddie Jones controversially left his position as Wallabies head coach after the Rugby World Cup (Photo by WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)

Rugby Australia is locked into a relatively poor broadcast contract for another two years, has lost key sponsor Harvey Norman and with the Wallabies in such turmoil, is not able to attract big-name brands to invest in the national team.

They tried and failed to find an equity investor, deciding in late November 2023 to borrow $80m in a credit facility from Pacific Equity Partners.

Essentially, this is a loan that has been given on the strength of the revenues RA is forecasting it will make by hosting the British and Irish Lions in 2025 and World Cups in 2027 and 2029.

RA has a strong case to believe it will be better off in the long run by borrowing money now rather than selling a share in its commercial assets.

As RA chief executive Phil Waugh confirmed at the time the deal was signed: “Given the visibility we have on revenues, it became clear debt capital was going to be the best solution for rugby.

“This approach ensures we retain 100% of the commercial revenues from the game, that all capital raised will go into the game and that RA controls its own direction during this next period of growth and development.”

Given the financial strife being felt in the English Premiership after taking money from CVC, Waugh’s argument it is not right for Australia to sell equity holds weight.

RA has a strong case to believe it will be better off in the long run by borrowing money now rather than selling a share in its commercial assets.

But the issue is the short term, because RA has to get through 2024 and much of 2025 before it will see the money flow in from the Lions tour, and secondly, perhaps more importantly, the money may not flow in the way it expects if the Wallabies can’t convince the public the series is going to be competitive.

Everyone loves a Lions tour, and the brand remains universally popular, but it won’t be cheap for fans to pilgrimage to Australia from the UK and Ireland. If those punters don’t believe the event will offer much drama or intrigue, it becomes a harder sell.

Andy Farrell
Ireland boss Andy Farrell was unveiled as the British and Irish Lions head coach last week (Photo by PA)

The last two tours to Australia have been epic. The Wallabies won the 2001 iteration late in the third Test, while the visitors exacted their revenge in 2013, when they won 2-1.

But right now, given the Wallabies didn’t make it out of a relatively weak World Cup pool and were hammered 40-6 by Wales, there is little hope the Australians would cope with a team consisting mostly of Irish and English players with a few Scots thrown in to spice the mix.

Certainly, the RA board and Waugh have been wrestling with the question of how to fix the Wallabies in time for the Lions tour, which is why they are taking their time to appoint a replacement for Eddie Jones, who resigned after the World Cup.

The local names in the frame are Stephen Larkham and Dan McKellar, but the latter is under contract with Leicester, and it will be expensive to buy him out.

The danger is these off-field issues can become prolonged, public and messy, create disharmony between the high-performance and commercial teams and unsettle the players.

The other option is former Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, who would come with enormous experience and inside knowledge of the Wallabies fiercest rival having spent the past two years with the All Blacks, but he may alienate Australian fans who won’t necessarily like the idea of a Kiwi being in charge.

Having endured a torrid 10 months with Jones in charge, RA have to get this appointment right or the Lions tour could flop commercially and compromise their ability to pay back their debt.

Across the Tasman in New Zealand, there are plenty of problems simmering too.

Silver Lake, the US fund manager which now owns almost seven per cent of New Zealand Rugby’s commercial assets, is under pressure to deliver more revenue, having shown little sign so far it can produce the sort of financial returns it was promising as part of its pitch to buy into the All Blacks two years ago.

The game is also on the verge of major governance change with a plan having been proposed to axe the current NZR board in favour of adopting a new system where all nine directors are independent.

The danger is these off-field issues can become prolonged, public and messy, create disharmony between the high-performance and commercial teams and unsettle the players.

New All Blacks coach Scott Robertson had hoped he would enjoy a period of administrative stability and certainty in his first months in charge, but that now seems highly unlikely.

What’s also increasingly problematic in New Zealand is the declining number of teenage boys who want to play the game.

Scott Robertson
Scott Robertson began working with the All Blacks players this month (Photo Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The All Blacks have relied on an incredible volume of talent over the decades, but the production line is being challenged, with the latest numbers showing junior male participants dropped by another two per cent.

But perhaps the country with the biggest problem is South Africa. That may be hard to believe as they have won back-to-back World Cups, while their club teams have transitioned successfully into Europe.

That, though, is the problem. They now have one foot in the northern hemisphere and one foot in the south, which means some players are being asked to play 12 months of the year without any break.

Looking ahead, it’s hard to see how these players are going to get through the next World Cup cycle without burning out.

We are burning our assets into the ground. Especially those playing in South Africa.

When England, Ireland, France, Scotland and Wales finish their summer tours in July 2024, their players will fly home for some well-deserved rest and reconditioning before rejoining their clubs in September.

The South Africans, however, will stay in camp to prepare for the Rugby Championship which kicks off in August and ends in September and then they will rejoin their clubs, play more Tests in November and go back to club duty in December.

It’s unsustainable and while the Springboks have been able, since 2021, to pull their players from all over the world to form a supremely competitive team, the question will be for how much longer they can do this given the physical and mental demands involved.

As former Bok captain Jean de Villiers told RugbyPass recently: “We are burning our assets into the ground. Especially those playing in South Africa.

“Physically they can probably take it, but the mental aspect of representing your country, the issues that go with it, that is huge.

“We want the product to be good and for the product to be good, you need your best players on the field more times than not.”


Red and White Dynamight 156 days ago

We dont want the Boks in the 6N. The URC is the lowest rated comp in Europe, let them have the dreggs.

Bob Marler 156 days ago

I followed some sage advice.

Genius advice.

I blocked that Kant Nigel. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. My enjoyment of this website has improved 10-fold!

The best part - I can’t unblock him. Even if I wanted to (or I dont know how). So it’s permanent bliss!

Block that moron now. It’s a game changer.

john 157 days ago

Ever since Australia started employing kiwi coaches, we have been going backwards.
But werent they meant to be amazing and would coach us to be amazing ?

Well it all turned out to be complete and utter bs. Unsurprisingly. There’s a very good reason kiwis were desperate to get kiwi coaches in to the system of what was once the smartest rugby country in the world. So they could undermine us and convince us to play like kiwis so the All Blacks knew exactly what they would be getting in the Bledisloe Cup.

Funny thing is kiwis didn’t realise that by trying to kill of their neighbouring competition, they killed off their own competitiveness.

Seeing Mark Nawaqitinase defect to league, in part no doubt because it looks like the Tahs are trying to manipulate another kiwi coach to coach Australia and seeing Ress Zammit dump Wales for the NFL, again no doubt in part because the Welsh union doesn’t engender any passion for Wales by hiring only kiwi coaches also, should be a significant worry for the Australian and Welsh unions.

Bob Marler 157 days ago

What is the net effect of key Boks playing in Japan rather than Europe? I have a sense that Japan is becoming an increasingly useful place to mitigate some of the burnout risks associated with the timing of seasons. Better on the bodies too.

And, is the world league idea not going to assist with reconfiguring seasons across the NH and SH?

But over and above this, is the answer not going to be around making players ineligible for provincial duty in SA as we are already seeing at the moment?

I don’t know the answers. Asking for a friend.

Hardly panic stations imho.

Nigel 158 days ago

Very naive artical from GP with regards to SA. With WR still enforcing (and increasingly so) their mandate that all their officials protect and molly coddle SA rugby teams in all forms of the game against international opponents) SA must be left to sleep in the bed they made. They fled from Super Rugby with their tails between their legs after 9 winless years and now the clown Erasmus is crying wolf about too much rugby for the mediocre journeymen that SA churn out en masse. Stupid is as stupid does but when you have the sport's governing body ensuring (through increasingly more desperate and embarrassing protective measures) it's easy to see why he bleats so. Hell, another pathetic, laughable social media cry baby dump can’t be far away.

Pecos 158 days ago

I don’t think anyone’s digging a “grave” quite yet to be fair. But the questions are legit & don’t only apply to the South, it’s the same issues generally in the North. Money & money. Everything else is just details.

The structural changes underway in Australia around centralisation & looming in NZ around more agile governance are exciting for the future of both organisations imo. We'll all no doubt get a better gauge on things as this year pans out.

The participation report for rugby in NZ was hugely positive. The only negative stat across 11 summary data points was indeed the 2% decline of club boys down to 49,999. Robinson said the decline was felt in some regions while in others there was an increase. Such data is helpful of course for future planning.

South Africa has its own model. I don’t know how they do it but so far so good I would’ve thought. The only “grave” fear I have is if they leave TRC for the 6N.

Some very complex issues facing the South. As the saying goes:

“If anyone has experience with anything or knows anything about something, then please let me know”.

Gerald 159 days ago

Gregor, your views got me thinking further. Playing workload and depth is going to be crucial. To date Rassie has not been scared to build depth. He has never been afraid to pull a player once he feels they are tiring- he has pulled Siya early often. All the players know this and accept it. He has also been prepared to pick sides where he knows he has to pick guys who are not the top guys, but doing this will build depth. We saw this last year.

Gerald 159 days ago

I also feel the term ‘grave’ makes one think someone might not survive. A bit dramatic a word 😂

Gerald 159 days ago

Gregor, thank God as you mentioned the Southern Hemisphere is going to struggle for various reasons and issues which include financial. They have actually struggled since before Covid, and only 3 sides qualified for the semi finals, which could be termed a failure. With all the money in the north, the ability for WR ( read English Rugger) being able to change rules and where all the major games are played, they really do need every advantage they can get. Thank heavens the north can attract so many Southern Hemisphere players to boost their local franchises, and the French who are able to attract so many Polynesian players who get citizenship, which is making their sides far more competitive. It was not healthy to have the ‘South’ winning so many WC’s.
Gregor, while all you say is true, the pipeline of athleticism and genuine talent from NZ, SA and to a lesser degree Aussie will stay competitive. You have my word. I have a feeling the ABs will be a real force under Scott the next 4 year cycle, and Rassie will not snooze. And Aussie will be better once it sorts its house out. There were countless journos and rugger folk who wrote off the south before the last WC, and we know what happened.
You may be right to an extent with what you say, but the sheer bloody mindedness of the Boks and the ABs will keep them competitive.

Wayneo 159 days ago

This does not give the full picture of the financial mess both New Zealand and Australia are in following New Zealand's Aratipu Report that endorsed a Trans-Tasman Super Rugby competition that not only excluded Argentina but also the proverbial “Golden Goose” in the SANZAAR relationship.

That Goose, who subsequently barely managed to avoid starvation and complete ruin during the pandemic for which the same New Zealand Rugby and their Aratipu Report were 100% responsible for, is now sitting laying golden eggs in a new nest so kindly provided by the Northern hemisphere rugby community.
NZR ended up having to sell an initial stake to Silver Lake for $200 million in February but ended up making a loss of close to $50 million last year and are projecting to only become profitable again in 10 years’ time. There is also more drama with NZR wanting to sell another chunk off to Silver Lake for $62 million that will take them up to 7.5% ownership.

The other side to of the Tasman it’s even worse with the ARU. The $80 million they recently borrowed is on top of the $25 million they took out last year. Three of their 5 Super Rugby teams are also under severe financial strain and the Rebels are effectively bankrupt so maybe people in Australia should ask where the $8 million a year NZR are paying the ARU to play in SRP is going to.

Looking at the current state of the game in the SH I am beginning to suspect that NZR had some crack addicts compile that Aratipu Report.
By contrast, SA Rugby has no such financial issues and have recently increased the salary cap of their 4 URC teams and the player drain has not only slowed but has started to reverse.
SA Rugby had a magnificent year last year, we won the RWC, and match day attendances have also reversed the decline from Super Rugby days and are ticking back up better than expected.

The complaint that the players are playing too much rugby, and the lack of a global season are legitimate and very serious concerns that will ultimately decide the future of SA Rugby’s participation in the Rugby Championship.

I just hope for New Zealand and Australia’s sake that it won’t be the same people that wrote the Aratipu Report who vote on the global season.

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