SA Rugby’s regrettable call

South Africa’s six franchises could have been part of the Champions Cup extravaganza if not for a flawed decision to stick with Sanzaar in 2014, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Could the finalists of the 2018 Super Rugby tournament draw more than 50,000 fans to a neutral venue? Could the superlative Hurricanes and Crusaders, for example, attract a crowd of that size to a stadium situated in a country that is better known for its football than its rugby?

It’s inconceivable, even more so given the drop in crowd and TV viewership numbers in recent years. Fans of southern hemisphere rugby may not want to believe it, but the Champions Cup and the Super Rugby tournament are worlds apart in terms of quality and spectator appeal.

Leinster played Racing 92 in Bilbao, Spain, this past Saturday. Even before kick-off, the stage was set for a final fitting a tournament of this magnitude.

Even for those like myself watching on TV, it looked a good deal bigger and more important than the Super Rugby decider staged at Ellis Park last year. I was in Johannesburg for the final involving the Lions and the Crusaders, and while there was a vibrant atmosphere at the iconic South African ground – one of the best rugby stadiums in the world – but it was an occasion that was largely incomparable with the event staged in Bilbao nearly a year later.

At present, the Champions Cup has every right to sell itself as the world’s premier club competition. The final is, as a result, the world’s biggest game in club and provincial rugby.

The big question, of course, is why a traditional powerhouse like South African rugby isn’t involved in the world’s top club tournament. The answer, sadly, is that the best sides from this country would and should have been moved north in 2014 if not for a flawed decision to maintain the status quo.

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Twenty teams currently compete in the Champions Cup. When the concept was first formulated as a succession plan to the European Cup, there was an option to include 18 teams from Europe and as many six teams from South Africa.

The Champions Cup was supposed to be rugby’s answer to the Champions League. The six best teams from England and France; the six best-placed teams from a Celtic competition, including clubs from countries such as Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales; and, if SA Rugby had only agreed to it, the six South African franchises, namely the Bulls, Cheetahs, Kings, Lions, Sharks and Stormers.

I travelled with the Springboks to Brisbane ahead of the Test against the Wallabies in 2013. SA Rugby officials were also in the country at the time – at the same hotel in fact – to meet with Sanzaar about the future of the Super Rugby and Rugby Championship tournaments.

I remember then deputy president Mark Alexander telling me and a couple of other journalists that SA Rugby had every intention of re-signing with Sanzaar.

The reason? South African rugby needed Australia and New Zealand. The local franchises needed to compete regularly against those Australasian teams in Super Rugby, and the Boks needed to go up against the Wallabies and All Blacks twice a year with the ultimate aim of maintaining a position in the top three on the World Rugby rankings.

Five years later, and South African rugby has sunk to its lowest point in the professional era. Only one local team is in the top half of the Super Rugby table after 13 rounds. The Boks have won one Rugby Championship Test against Australasian opposition in the past two years, and have not won the Sanzaar showpiece since 2009.

What’s more, they have not beaten the likes of England, Ireland or Wales away from home in a long time.

The decision to expand the Super Rugby tournament, of course, has been exposed as absurd. Three teams were cut in the wake of the 2017 tournament. Even so, crowd and TV numbers continue to dwindle, and critics and former players alike yearn for the days when the competition was strength versus strength and commanded the respect of the global community.

So much for the argument that sticking with Sanzaar would perpetuate South African rugby’s standing as a giant at Test and regional level.

The recent battle between the Stormers and Bulls at Newlands was a hark back to the days when the north-south derby mattered. In the context of the recent decline, a turnout of 30,000 at a 52,000-seater stadium in Cape Town was seen as a plus.

In the grand scheme of things, it was nothing more than a really good domestic game. Remember those? Remember when Currie Cup matches mattered? The recent clash at Newlands was like the epic semi-final between the two rivals in 2009, when both teams were stacked with seasoned Boks and the game, decided by a single penalty goal, played out in front of a capacity crowd.

If only SA Rugby had made the bold but necessary call to ditch Sanzaar and pursue a future in the north back in 2014. That would have seen the franchises pitted against the best sides in the United Kingdom and Europe.

The Bulls versus Toulon. The Sharks versus Munster. The Stormers versus Saracens. These games would have played out and fans from both hemispheres would have no cause to wonder, ‘What if?’

An added benefit would have seen South African rugby retaining a strong Currie Cup tournament. A 24-team Champions Cup would have seen teams competing in six pools and playing no more than six games – ie home and away – in the regular season. If they progressed as far as the final, a team would have played nine games in total.

Even if all 14 unions featured in the Currie Cup regular season, a team that made the final of both tournaments wouldn’t play more than 25 matches a year.

Unfortunately, that opportunity was never taken. Instead, SA Rugby signed on for an 18-team Super Rugby tournament in 2016 that was doomed from the start. I remember chatting to a high-ranking official about the four-conference format in 2014, and he told me that it was a case of going through the process to prove that it was flawed.

Now we’re hearing talk about the future post-2020. There are rumours of another expansion, of more teams from South Africa and even the USA being added to the Super Rugby roster.

The Super Rugby tournament, be it the 10-team or the 18-team format, has always presented a challenge in terms of travel. A move to Europe would eliminate that challenge. It’s an overnight flight from South Africa to the UK and Europe. Jet-lag is not a factor.

There has always been a question of whether the journey to Australasia, and indeed the whole Super Rugby format, is good for SA Rugby. There can be no doubt, if one considers recent Super Rugby and Test results, that the tournament has done nothing for the game in this country.

SA Rugby missed a golden opportunity in 2014. Imagine where those teams could have been in 2018 if the officials in question had made the right decision.

Instead of Leinster playing Racing 92, we may well have seen the Lions or another top team battling the best of England, France or Ireland in a far-flung European cathedral worthy of a rare and important occasion.

We could well be celebrating a South African champion right now. Instead, we’re thinking about why three of the four South African teams are sitting in the bottom half of a tournament that is no longer the best in the world. The other two franchises, namely the Cheetahs and Kings, are languishing in a second-tier competition in Europe that is on par with a watered-down Currie Cup.

We’re being told that competing against Kiwi and Aussie Super Rugby will improve South Africa’s chances of success against the All Blacks and Wallabies on the Test stage. This despite the fact that the Boks have not won a Rugby Championship Test Down Under since 2013. This despite the fact that a side like Ireland – who has no ties to Super Rugby or the Rugby Championship – beat the All Blacks in 2016 and the Wallabies in every Test since 2013.

SA Rugby missed a golden opportunity to move north in 2014. The decision to remain with Sanzaar in the years that follow 2020 will ensure that South African teams remain mediocre and continue to miss out on the club fixtures that will be remembered for generations to come.

Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli