Over the weekend it was announced that from next season Super Rugby will be reducing in size from 18 teams to 15, with 1 Australian and 2 South African franchises set to be cut. This is clearly a less-than-ideal situation and there will be a number of players and fans upset (not to mention angry) with the decision while they wait to see if their franchise is one of the unlucky 3.
Back in 2016, when the tournament was expanded to include a 6th South African team and franchises in Japan and Argentina, SANZAAR made the mistake of making the tournament format overly confusing, spreading the teams over 4 conferences within 2 groups, rather than simply adding an extra team into each of the existing 3 conferences. I am, to put it lightly, a rugby nut, so if I found the format difficult to understand then I hate to imagine how it was for more casual fans!
While the job of picking the franchises to be cut falls to the affected unions, it will be interesting to see how the teams are picked. The Western Force are widely tipped to be the ARU’s sacrificial lamb, but if that is the case, all 4 remaining franchises will be located in eastern Australia, alienating a large number of Australian Rugby fans. What will annoy Force fans even more if this goes through is the knowledge that they have been more successful (4 wins from 21 games) than the Sunwolves (2 wins & 1 draw from 21 games) since the expansion, yet the Sunwolves are guaranteed their place in the competition due to SANZAAR’s “strategic plan for the future”. This plan for the future supposedly relates to the potential of the sport to grow in Asia off the back of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but you have to wonder how much the decision also relates to money. We still appear no closer to getting a Pacific Island franchise even though they would arguably be more ready for the quality of opposition than the Sunwolves have been so far. It seems that the potential for rich new markets matters more to the people at the top than retaining the traditional rugby heartlands and you wonder if some of the national teams will begin to struggle down the line as a result.
It could be argued that some of the national teams are struggling already. The Pacific Islands continue to lose potential internationals to other countries and now only Fiji can be found in the top 10. Tonga and Samoa (13th and 14th respectively) are now both below not just Japan (11th) but also Georgia (12th). Even more noticeable to the casual fan has been South Africa’s drop to 7th in the world rankings after only 4 wins in 2016. Between the Springbok’s poor form and arguments over racial quotas, the last thing SARU needed was one-third of their Super Rugby franchises being cut! Cutting these 3 teams will also not help the ARU and SARU stop the migration of talented players to richer European leagues, so unless they tighten the election policy for the national teams they could see more prospective internationals choosing to play outside the control of their national union.
At first glance, the only ones who benefit from these changes next season are those whose unions are not being required to cut teams. The Japanese and Argentinian national teams will be able to continue to grow alongside their respective franchises and the NZRU will be able to continue to churn out the next batch of superstars through their 5 franchises, whilst continuing their recent dominance in the competition (7 of the last 12 finalists, 4 of them tournament champions). The New Zealand franchises may have generally performed better than the other countries’ franchises in recent years – the Blues are currently the only one not in the top half of this season’s combined table – but it does feel harsh that they will have more franchises than South Africa, who have over double the number of clubs and 4 times the number of registered players.
There was no way that everyone was going to be happy once it was clear teams needed to be cut from Super Rugby, but I can’t help but wonder if the format of the tournament these last 2 years was part of the issue. Hopefully if SANZAAR look to expand the tournament again in the future they will look at keeping a simpler format. Or perhaps 15 is the perfect number of teams in the competition. If they do decide to stick to 15, I will be very interested to see how SANZAAR deal with future expansions, either to have more Argentinian/Japanese franchises, or to include franchises from other nations such as the Pacific Islands or the USA.
Maybe SANZAAR need to look at the creation of a second tier within the tournament, with the champions of the lower tier being promoted at the end of the season in order to replace the team in the top tier that came bottom of the table. This may make the geographical conference structure more difficult, but it would allow each of the original 3 unions to field 5-6 franchises over the 2 tiers, whilst also allowing franchises from other nations to compete on a level playing field. If they could get 20-24 franchises over the two tiers, they would be able to go for 10-12 per tier, cutting down on the travel costs.
These are just my personal views on the matter, so I would be very interested to hear your opinions. What do you think of the current 18-team format and the plans for next year? Where do you think Super Rugby should go after this? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge