Where to for Super Rugby? It comes as no great surprise that SANZAR officials are struggling to agree on the best format for a new Super Rugby competition. Some will ask why does the tournament need to re-invent itself once more, and if the competition is expanded even further what impact is that going to have on the International game and the toll on the bodies of the top players from each nation. Australia has already proved that it does not have the talent pool within Australia to sustain a World Cup challenging Wallabies outfit; it must accept that players should not be excluded from selection if they opt to play overseas.
Meetings have been carried out for months between Australian, New Zealand and South African rugby officials but still they seem unable to reach a simple solution for expanding Super Rugby. They have agreed to admit a sixth South African team and also an Argentine side; which was logical after this nation became a part of the Rugby Championship Tournament.
There is a strong push to welcome a franchise in Asia, expected to be from Japan, which would open up huge sponsorship potential as well as a new television market.
Interestingly former All Black Andrew Mehrtens has said that he believes the competition should look to exclude South Africa as it moves forward. Writing a column for Stuff.co.nz he said “I can’t help thinking we might have lost a little interest in playing South African teams, and that ultimately the future of this competition might be more localised round time zones.”
Could this view stem from the fact that South Africa has for a while eyed off the opportunity of linking into the European competitions and six nations as opposed to the Southern Hemisphere competitions? This has been based on travel and time zones and in theory makes sense. The downside is Australia and New Zealand playing each other year in year out is not going to have the same appeal as having a powerhouse like South Africa in the mix.
Saying that, the performances of the South African teams on the road this year in Super Rugby is terrible, they have not won a single game in ten outings in New Zealand and Australia.
“The logistics of involving South Africa are problematic – the travel and time difference – and maybe it would be better for all concerned just to play within our time zone and include teams from the Pacific Islands and Japan. You might have 20 teams in our time-zone – eight or so from New Zealand, maybe six in Australia and the rest from the islands and Japan.” Mehrtens wrote.
Some have felt for a long time that SANZAR should have welcomed the island nations into Super Rugby long ago, that it was almost their duty to assist these nations in improving. Promises were made and broken twice as Super Rugby expanded and no doubt they will all be miffed that once again they may be overlooked in favour of an Argentine or Japanese team.
What option do the island players have than to move to Australia and New Zealand and then pledge allegiance to those nations in order to play test rugby. The sad thing is if you speak to most of the players who have done that, most will tell you they would rather have played for their island nation.
Interestingly New Zealand is currently bemoaning a similar issue, that of their top coaches being poached by European clubs, and up and coming players by Australian franchises and then donning the colours of the Wallabies.
Mike Harris at the Queensland Reds had only been living in Australia for two years and playing Super Rugby for a year before he was selected for the Wallabies. He had not been picked up by a New Zealand franchise despite starring in the ITM Cup. Western Force full back Jayden Hayward, who hails from Taranaki, had spells with the Highlanders and the Hurricanes before crossing the Tasman, he even played Sevens for New Zealand, but now is looking to make himself available for Australia. The Melbourne Rebels too have New Zealanders who may switch allegiance in Jason Woodward and Scott Fuglistaller. Both come from Wellington, Woodward never played Super Rugby in his homeland while Fugilstaller played a couple of games for the Highlanders but was unable to hold down a regular place.
Is this good for Australian rugby? Surely the loss of South Africa to the Super Rugby competition as Mehrtens has suggested would see more New Zealanders moving to an Asian franchise and the drain on players continuing.
Whichever way the leaders at SANZAR eventually opt to take, the IRB needs to put in stronger rules in relation to players switching nations at international level. Obviously there should not be a restraint of trade in terms of the franchises signing players in order to be competitive, as that benefits the tournament as a whole, but qualification periods should be enforced for International appearances. That honour should never be given away lightly.
As for the worrying issue of New Zealand and South African players strengthening the Australian Super Rugby franchises at the expense of local talent, that too needs to be monitored and controlled by the Australian Rugby Union. If these players add to the development of Australian players as is currently evident at the Western Force, and also instil a rugby culture and make competition for places stiffer thereby raising the standard of Australian players then that has to be a good thing. It can only benefit Australian rugby in the end. It does however need to be monitored and the ARU.
As for South African born Mehrtens idea that South Africa be left out of Super Rugby, that could well be the death knell for the competition as we know it. One thing is for sure he was never greatly loved in the Republic and his comments are not going to have helped improve that relationship; but he will not lose any sleep over the matter.