Sometimes bigger is not better. Super Rugby has found that out the hard way.
Instead of learning the lessons from the competitions in Europe, who soon realised when the game went professional that too much rugby was harmful to the players and also to the standard of rugby both at club and international level, SANZAAR expanded in 2016.
Super Rugby expanded to 18 teams from 15 in 2016, and teams were brought in from South Africa, Japan and Argentina. The additional teams meant the competition was restructured to a format that disenfranchised many who found it to hard to understand. One criticism was that there were too many games, which made it harder to stay on top of the competition.
It looks as if commonsense will prevail and in 2018 SANZAAR will reduce the number of teams to 16. Yet there are concerns that this structure will also be confusing.
It was believed that the competition would see teams divided into four equal size conferences, however this is not possible because there are five New Zealand teams who are in no danger of being cut.So it may well be that we see three conferences, two of equal size and one larger one.
The Japanese side, the Sunwolves, it is believed will replace an Australian team, thought to be either The Western Force or the Melbourne Rebels, which will then make up a conference of five sides like New Zealand. One factor that may help the Force is its geographical location. Time-wise it is ideally placed for television and the viewing of games on the East coast, in South Africa and New Zealand. This will play a major part in the decision. Also it has been a great stopover on the way to South Africa for New Zealand teams and vice versa, as well as for Australian teams.
However there will still be problem as South Africa currently has six teams and then there are also the Jaguares in Argentina to accommodate. So does that mean that two South African teams face the axe to accommodate the Argentineans or as is rumoured will this conference may be made up of six teams? Meaning only one South African side will be cut.
There is no doubt that South African rugby is in a very tough place, just watching the start of the 2017 Super Rugby tournament teams are being forced to blood youngsters. It was reported that over 75 players left South Africa at the end of the last Super Rugby season to go and play in Europe or Japan. Apart from the opportunity, the main reason for the exodus is money. With the South African Rand worth so little outside of Africa it is not surprising that players are leaving to try and earn salaries that will set them up when they walk away from the game.This is an issue SA Rugby needs to address.
So the belief is that one team in South Africa may be culled, along with one in Australia. This was why the ARU asked Australian teams to delay re-signing non-Wallabies players until after a decision was made on the future of Super Rugby.
The powers that be are due to make an announcement today. Hopefully they have thought this through carefully, especially the format and structure of the competition. It would be good to also understand if a decision has been made that there will be no more expansion how long that will be the case. It must be for at least three seasons. Also if there is to be future expansion there must be some way to look after the Pacific Island nations and include them, as they have a strong claim to be playing in this competition.
This will not be a popular move as these nations are the ones that many of the first tier nations fear are their biggest threat when it comes to World Cup success. It is therefore not in the best interests of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa for the Pacific Island nations to be strong. It is however in the interests of rugby as a whole, and surely that must come first?