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It makes sense - after some thought

The Southern Kings’ win over the Waratahs did bring into sharp relief just how poor Australian rugby has become, and it gave some legs to the argument that perhaps Australia should have lost another team, and South Africa one less, for the purpose of fitting the new 15-team Super Rugby formula.

Historically it makes sense for South Africa to have more teams than Australia, instead of an equal spread of four each. Since Natal became a force as a precursor to the later Sharks success story in 1990, there have usually been five strong South African teams – the Sharks, Bulls, Western Province, the Lions and the Cheetahs.

They’ve taken it in turns to do well and to dominate. For instance the Lions are enjoying a good run now and did in the 1990s but had some lean times in between, while the Cheetahs were Currie Cup champions a couple of times in the mid-2000s and are the current domestic champions.

The Bulls and WP (Stormers) have generally been consistent, and until recently it was rare for the Sharks to have a really lean year, but the point is, it is hard to turn five into four in South Africa, let alone six into four, which is what is being asked.

In Australia the history is different. It will be recalled by those who followed rugby before the Super Rugby era started just over two decades ago that there used to only be two decent state teams in Australia – New South Wales (Waratahs) and Queensland (Reds). If an international team went on tour, they’d play ACT, but it was seen as a one-sided midweek game, and it was the same when the provinces went to Australia. The ACT game carried “friendly” status in comparison to the ones against the Waratahs or Reds.

The Brumbies of course embarked on a modern rugby success story under first Rod Macqueen and then Eddie Jones in the Super Rugby era, thus bringing the number of strong franchises in Australia to three. Then Western Force was added when the competition became the Super 14 in 2006, with the purpose of spreading the rugby gospel to Western Australia. That was the year when the Australian representation went to four and the South African to five, with the Cats splitting into the Lions and Cheetahs.

There was a later shift when the competition went to 15 with the Rebels from Melbourne being added. If you look at it in relation to where it started, meaning rugby only really being strong in two Australia regions before 1995, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that their Super Rugby challenge looks so weak. Their resource pool has just been too diluted. They’ve effectively gone from two, which was the case when that nation first won the World Cup in 1991, to five.

There’s been dilution in South Africa too, and most people would agree that although the Kings did win last week and the Cheetahs have had their moments in the competition, this country doesn’t have the professional rugby depth to field six teams.

Arguably five is too many too, the reason for that being the player drain to the UK, France and Japan in pursuit of stronger foreign currencies. Several layers of players who would have brought much-needed experience to the local franchises have been siphoned off by the Yen, Sterling and Euro, and the South African Super Rugby squads are getting younger and younger.

Ideally, the split should be five New Zealand teams, four South African teams and three Australian, which was how it was in the days of the Super 12.

The make-up of a competition should not, however, just be directed by form, and there are other considerations that need to be taken into account. Natal for instance never won their way back into the Currie Cup A Section after they were relegated in the 1980s. They won their way back through the boardroom, where their earning potential held sway. It proved a good decision.

World rugby needs Australia to be strong, and limiting the Wallaby choices in the various positions to just three, which would be the case if they just had three teams, wouldn’t be good for them. The rugby union footprint does need to be spread beyond Queensland, New South Wales and ACT, so on that basis it does make sense for there to be four Australian teams. Hopefully losing one team will lift the quality of the rugby produced by the Aussies.

South Africans should be concerned about the possibility of not having the great player factory driven by Grey College in Bloemfontein represented in Super Rugby. The arguments in favour of the Eastern Cape inclusion have also become stronger in recent weeks. There is merit to the claim that it will be bad for South African rugby for those areas to be completely ignored, so some lateral thinking is required.

But given the challenges posed by foreign currency, it does make sense to concentrate the resources into fewer and hopefully stronger teams, thus giving the local administrators greater financial clout in the battle for the services of the players that the unions produce. For that same reason, it also makes sense for the franchises to be based in the bigger financial centres.

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