The recent announcement that New Zealand want to explore a Super Rugby competition without South Africa could actually serve to strengthen the World Champions ahead of their title defence in 2023.
While South Africa’s franchises may need to look elsewhere for their 2021 season, the Springboks are expected to remain part of the Rugby Championship, as SANZAAR are still reported to be in charge of the international competition.
The amended Super Rugby competition proposed by New Zealand would be a much smaller competition, with around eight to ten teams, including at least one Pacific Islands team. This would also be a positive step for World Rugby, as it could see the likes of Fiji or Samoa reach their immense potential on the world stage with consistent matches against some of the world’s best franchises, as well as the Australians, who, let’s face it, are only in Super Rugby because they are across the ditch from New Zealand.
A Super Rugby tournament without South Africa, as the two parallel tournaments currently being played has proven, will be a completely different tournament to the one that we are used to and have enjoyed since the days of the Super 12. Super Rugby Aotearoa has seen some typical New Zealand flair and power, but with some not-so-typical unpredictability, such as drop goals, maul tries and the strange occurrence of New Zealanders actually getting pegged for offsides. At the end of the day it has proven that, at least on the pitch, New Zealand can survive without South Africa.
Super Rugby AU, on the other hand, has proven to be a drab affair thus far, three rounds in. The Western Force, who were left out in the cold in 2018, are the surprise of the year, as although they have not yet found that winning formula, they are still able to push the like of the Waratahs and the Reds much deeper into the match than you would have expected. The Australian franchises have not put up anything in their first three weeks back from lockdown to suggest that they could compete with any of the New Zealand franchises.
But the new Super Rugby tournament would be the perfect proving ground for a Fijian and a Samoan franchise to feed life and experience into their respective national sides. Much like what happened with the Jaguares from Argentina, a year or two in Super Rugby could see the Pacific Islands franchises consistently beating the Australian franchises (and potentially even some South African ones), and even be competitive against the likes of the Hurricanes and the Chiefs.
However, this is not about Super Rugby, this is about South Africa. The rumours of more South African franchises joining the Pro14 have been circling for over a year, with the Sharks, Bulls, Lions and Stormers looking increasingly likely to for part of a Pro18 setup. This would open the Springboks back up to selecting players from the Cheetahs and Southern Kings again, as they will be in the same competition as every other South African franchise.
The wider player pool available for the Springboks, combined with the diversity in opposition from Europe could give the Springboks an edge over their European counterparts come World Cup time. Additionally, South African players will become accustomed to all possible playing conditions, as the South African and European climates are vastly different, allowing South Africa to develop game plans that will be effective in any scenario in a World Cup.
It remains vital that the Springboks form part of the Rugby Championship alongside Australia and New Zealand. While the 6 Nations is undoubtedly a very competitive and exciting competition, New Zealand are rightly still considered one of, if not the best team in world rugby, despite losing the World Cup. If South Africa are going to continue to perform on the international stage, they need to play against the best opposition in the world.
The world champions should still relish the opportunity to play in Europe though, as this will not only diversify their opposition, but also line the pockets of the increasingly cash-strapped unions. Coming out of Covid-19, and with the South African economy in utter shambles as a result, the Euro will be a welcome source of revenue that could help save the Western Province from bankruptcy and keep players in South Africa.
It is not as if South Africa do not bring anything to the party in Europe either. It has been well known for years that the largest portion of SANZAAR’s income from viewership have come from South Africa (because nobody watches rugby in the stadiums, they watch it on SuperSport; it’s cheaper). Bringing this rugby-loving nation a tournament of 18 teams, all with unique and varied playing styles and player bases, in matches that take place in and around the same time zone is a no-brainer at this stage.
South Africans don’t often wake up at 9am on a Saturday to watch an Australian derby. But it is almost guaranteed that South Africans will fire up the braai for an action-packed afternoon of four matches in a row, regardless of if it is Zebre vs Connacht, Ospreys vs Leinster or the Sharks vs Edinburgh.
The biggest downside to South Africa not being part of Super Rugby anymore would be that the Bulls would forevermore be the only South African team to win it (if you don’t count the Transvaal wining the Super 10 in 1993, which no one ever seems to). Sure, we will miss the clashes between the Sharks and the Crusaders, the Bulls and the Brumbies or the Lions and the Reds, but that will also make it that much more special when the Springboks go on to play new Zealand and Australia in the Rugby Championship.
North or South? South Africa can enjoy the best of both worlds.