Reduced to a punching bag for New Zealand rugby, Australia need only seize the opportunity to engage South Africa in a mutually beneficial rugby competition, writes ZELIM NEL.
In the world of pro sport, public interest runs directly parallel to on-field success and taking care of the score is the bottom line for every organisation – whether or not it’s willing to admit it.
Rugby in Australia is living in denial with sports marketers there convinced that tries put bums on seats.
Following a run of 13 consecutive losses against their Kiwi rivals, talk that Australia should cull their trans-Tasman rugby alliance with NZ’s Super Rugby teams appeared to be gathering momentum.
This past Saturday, the Chiefs threw the Reds a bone and the Queenslanders held on to narrowly convert a 33-3 head start into a 40-34 win.
The game is not a good-news story in Australia and it’s no surprise that, by some counts, rugby union in that country defers to as many as five other sports, despite the Aussies having won two World Cups and four Super Rugby titles.
Unfortunately for Australia, that success harks back to the 1999 Rugby World Cup and the 2014 Super Rugby season. Since then, the Aussies have had to make do with Rugby Championship titles won during World Cup years, and marketers have attempted to paper over the lack of success by hyping ‘blockbuster’ clashes that inevitably feature an Australian team getting pumped by a Kiwi team.
But there was an obvious positive upturn in public perception after lockdown gave birth to the all-Australian Super Rugby AU in 2020, and the Reds won seven of eight matches this season to pique spectator interest – finally, a competition that celebrated the best of Australian rugby.
However, the quality of the tournament was put into context when the Aussie champs opened the combined stage of the comp with a 40-19 loss against the Highlanders, who had won just three of eight matches in New Zealand’s Super Rugby Aotearoa.
What Australian rugby really needs is a credible, but beatable opponent. Conveniently, South Africa needs a credible competition for the provincial teams that will feel neglected by the push to get the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers into Europe.
The likes of the Cheetahs, Griquas, Pumas, Eastern Province and Boland would be thrilled to offer all stakeholders a piece of the Southern Cup where they battle the Brumbies, Western Force, Rebels, Reds and Waratahs.
The competition could be split into three legs on an annually alternating basis with the SA teams touring Australia for five weeks before heading home to battle each other, followed by South Africa hosting the last five rounds to determine the finalists.
For the Aussies, they get to spar against teams comprised of players from the reigning world champions which gives meaning to the trophy presentation after a 15-week schedule culminates with the Reds and Brumbies contesting the decider.
The benefit for South Africa is the depth of talent being exposed to the experience of travelling to take on international competition, and being measured against players who represent Australia.
With the schedule geared primarily for the overseas audience (Brumbies at Mbombela Stadium to kick off at 12:30pm), Australian rugby fans are more likely to tune in to watch their heroes get back to what matters most – winning.