SA rugby franchises aiming north for the future

DETERMINED: Aphelele Fassi (with the ball) in action for the Sharks against the Jaguares in the Super Rugby competition Picture: SOURCED

It seems likely more South African rugby franchises will head north and join the Pro 14 tournament from 2021 and we could see the Stormers, Blue Bulls, Sharks and Lions in unfamiliar territory in the northern hemisphere competitions.

There has been fresh speculation that South Africa will leave Super Rugby for greener pastures in the northern hemisphere. This comes after the New Zealand Rugby Union announced its plans to stage a trans-Tasman Super Rugby competition in 2021 that will include five of their provincial franchises, three Australian teams and one Pacific Island team. This will also mean that there is no place for the Argentina side, the Jaguares.

The move has been on the cards for some time as Super Rugby has largely failed to attract sufficient interest, due to the conflicting time zones. The Covid-19 pandemic has fast-tracked those plans as New Zealand and Australia are already active, with their teams playing week in and week out. The Super Rugby Aotearoa in New Zealand has been a major success, with Australia’s franchises also playing their domestic competition. South African teams have been left in the wilderness and inactive due to the coronavirus.

NZR chief executive Mark Robinson pointed to the impact of the pandemic which, he claimed, was at the centre of what had been the “extremely tough” decision made around the new competition. He also stated that long distance travel will be significantly reduced, which has been a major obstacle to playing in South Africa and Argentina.

SA Rugby’s Jurie Roux responded: “The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has had a massive human impact and, in our sport, has asked fundamental questions of the viability of competitions and fixture scheduling.

“SA Rugby has been kept abreast of the thinking in New Zealand and of the outcomes of the Aratipu Report to address the immediate challenges of travel restrictions that may stretch into 2021. As part of a Sanzaar joint venture, we will be examining how the mooted new competition will fit into the existing contractual competitions.”

Roux warned that there were legally binding agreements that bound all four members of the Sanzaar partnership – South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina – that would be enforced if need be.

“If anybody kicked anybody out of Super Rugby, it was New Zealand kicking themselves out,” said Roux. “I am less worried about those nuances. New Zealand has every right to determine their future, but in terms of Sanzaar and the joint venture agreement, there is a very legal agreement in place, and you’ve got to act within that legal agreement.

“If you act outside of it, you’re in breach of the joint venture and you make yourself liable to legal action from the other parties in that joint venture.

“But, as always, we’ve dealt with everything in a very constructive fashion within Sanzaar and are still having discussions on what the year looks like and beyond.”

On the other hand, Rugby Australia is said to ignore a request to submit ‘expressions of interest’ in New Zealand’s proposed new Super Rugby Competition. “The expression of interest I’m not interested in and if they send it over, I won’t open it,” RA chairman Hamish McLennan said. McLennan said RA’s preference is a 10-team trans-Tasman competition in 2021, with five teams from New Zealand and five from Australia. Teams from Pacific Islands and Japan could be added in the future. RA is also working on a plan B, eight-team competition without New Zealand. It would feature all five Australian teams, as well as teams from Fiji, Argentina and Japan’s Sunwolves.

The only good news is that the Sanzaar relationship should remain firm with regard to the Rugby Championship and all parties could maintain their Test partnership with the Springboks, All Blacks, Australia and Argentina in the four-nation competition.

The best option for South African franchises is up north in an expanded Pro 14 tournament. The Cheetahs and Southern Kings are already playing in that competition. The financial strength, shorter travelling hours and better time zones for viewers are the major attractions.

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