New Super Rugby format looks to a divided future

Newly-created Argentinean (Jaguares) and Japanese (Sunwolves) join Super Rugby 2016
Newly-created Argentinean (Jaguares) and Japanese (Sunwolves) join Super Rugby 2016

Super Rugby is currently preparing itself for an exciting new era that will see it expand to an 18-team format in 2016, with two teams hailing from the previously unrepresented nations of Argentina and Japan.

The new format will see the 10 current Australasian franchises (five from Australia, five from New Zealand) compete in their own conference, whilst the newly-created Argentinean (Jaguares) and Japanese (Sunwolves) franchises will, alongside the Southern Kings, join the existing five South African franchises in the other conference.

The move is seen as positive one, encouraging the growth of rugby in Argentina and Japan, as well as Singapore, where the Sunwolves will play three of their eight home games in the 2016 season.

The new format will also lessen the impact of tiring tours and broadcaster-unfriendly kick off times, something which has historically impacted South Africa in television deals, with many of their games occurring in the middle of the night for the Australian and New Zealand television audiences.

This factor, along with a number of others, has led to whisperings, and in some quarters rumblings, that South African rugby may see its future more closely aligned to European rugby than it does to its traditional Australasian counterparts.

Saracens owner Nigel Wray stated last year that it was inevitable that South Africa would have to look north simply because of the demands of television in modern rugby. He even went as far as to say South Africa may have to withdraw from the Rugby Championship and look to the Six Nations, and though his fellow South African John Smit was less emphatic about that, he also conceded that he sees a future where South African club teams play against European competition on an annual basis.

The new-look Super Rugby season, if anything, highlights this as a very real possibility and potentially could expedite the process. 

The Sunwolves have struggled to attract the calibre of player needed to compete at Super Rugby level, while the Kings have had very public financial struggles which have led to a number of players departing, even with financial intervention from the South African Rugby Union. The Cheetahs have also struggled to retain players and head into the 2016 season with a very depleted and untested roster.

It leaves the South African conference looking fairly uncompetitive, particularly when compared to the Australasian conference, which boasts talented sides throughout.

From an Australasian perspective, the new format should be celebrated. Their sides no longer face long tours on a different continent and they get to trial what Super Rugby would look like without South African teams involved, thanks to their new 10-team conference.

It will afford the Australian and New Zealand Rugby Unions the opportunity to test the waters should the South African sides look to leave Super Rugby, whilst also allowing the Jaguares and Sunwolves to work out the kinks that new sides inevitably go through, and potentially have them join a new Australasian Super Rugby tournament somewhere down the road as much more polished sides.

With South Africa sitting in a time zone that’s just two hours ahead of the UK and an hour ahead of France, the two big financial markets which drive European rugby, the increase in television revenues that could be garnered by competing with the European teams is significant for the South African sides.

Any move north would create division and debate in both South Africa and Europe, but it’s hard to overlook the fact the new Super Rugby format certainly lends itself to a move along those lines in the future.

With European rugby looking to expand into new markets and South African rugby in search of extra funding, don’t be surprised if these rumblings get louder if the new format fails to deliver a compelling spectacle in the South African conference.