The prospect of the Boks moving away from an antagonistic Sanzaar alliance and into an expanded Six Nations would be an undeniably appealing prospect, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Last week, the strained relationship of the Sanzaar ‘partnership’ once again came starkly into the spotlight as Australia and New Zealand engaged in a bout of bickering.
Instead of the third Bledisloe Cup Test going ahead as planned, an off-field blame game took place as Australia launched a scathing attack on their Trans-Tasman opponents for unilaterally withdrawing from the Rugby Championship until further notice.
For SA Rugby and Argentina, who were preparing for battle in this past Saturday’s second Test, it felt a bit like that awkward moment when you find yourself caught in the middle of a family squabble that gets out of hand.
Last year, New Zealand Rugby already proved that its priorities had changed after abruptly announcing it was done with Super Rugby as we know it.
It meant SA Rugby expedited plans to head into northern-hemisphere action, and the newly devised United Rugby Championship was ultimately born as a result.
Ironically, reports have also just surfaced to suggest a new Super Rugby format has been agreed upon, with the New Zealand and Australia teams, along with Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua, set to engage in 14 round-robin fixtures before a possible straight knockout format featuring the top-eight teams.
If such a format is signed off, with a 12-team tournament rewarding eight teams with a playoff spot, it would be difficult to imagine too many onlookers jumping around with excitement.
In so many ways, the United Rugby Championship is a better fit for South African teams, and if it provides the expected pathway to elite European competition, I’d imagine SA Rugby will one day look back and wonder why they hadn’t made the move a whole lot sooner.
The Sanzaar relationship has become incredibly strained in a world that has fundamentally changed over the past 18 months, and in a time when governing bodies have had to put loyalties aside in order to safeguard their future and financial security.
Towards the end of last year, speculation of South Africa’s possible move to join the Six Nations tournament seemed end when Sanzaar revealed a 10-year strategic plan and reiterated the four-nation alliance would remain intact until 2030.
But as New Zealand Rugby demonstrated last year when ripping up the Super Rugby script, and again in withdrawing from the Rugby Championship last week, sometimes the best-laid plans can still be exposed to loopholes.
Whatever the case may be, it’s impossible not to wonder whether the strained Sanzaar matrimony might eventually be pushed to a breaking point that results in a premature divorce.
It happened to Super Rugby, after all, and SA Rugby quickly found a happy home elsewhere.
A stable 10-year period of Rugby Championship and Sanzaar unity just seems so unlikely at present, and there have still been plenty of rumours about an exit plan including a route for South Africa to the Six Nations – possibly after the 2023 World Cup.
Rugby nirvana would surely include playing in the Six Nations, while also possibly being able to still set up mid-year series with the All Blacks.
All the signs suggest SA Rugby’s future lies in the northern hemisphere, and it increasingly just feels like the sooner the better it would be for the Springboks to find an international foothold there.
Photo: Steve Haag Sports