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Rugby's plans for going global

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the possibility of some fairly significant changes coming up to the shape of Sanzar rugby.

We discussed some of these on ReUnion last week, but in case you missed it, here is a summary of the initiative being driven by the International Rugby Players Association (IRPA), as first reported by the New Zealand Herald on Sunday:

• A later start to both Super Rugby and northern hemisphere club competition, by about a month, to allow players 14-16 weeks' break between seasons.
• No break for Super Rugby in June; the competition to be played start to finish without a break, and to take no more than 22 weeks in total.
• Southern hemisphere test window currently played in June to be moved to July after completion of Super Rugby, possibly as part of a “World Series”.
• Northern hemisphere tests in November, possibly as part of a “World Series”.

Clearly some of these plans would not meet with the agreement of club owners, nor some national unions, but the IRPA has a lot of muscle, and if players around the world are in strong agreement, then club and country alike will have little choice but to make changes.

The later start will meet with some approval from fans who don’t like cricket and rugby being played at the same time, but it might not be favoured in Australia, where the ARU looks to Super Rugby to start as early as possible and gain a foothold of public attention ahead of its rival codes such as rugby league and Aussie Rules football. Australia has constantly pushed for a longer Super Rugby programme to fill the gaps in their domestic schedule, but there is no way it will get any longer than it is now.

I can’t imagine some of the European clubs will be happy about changing the June window to July, although the actions of the French in not playing their final until July, when the national side are in New Zealand on tour inadvertently adds weight to the proposal. I say inadvertently because the French tend to do what they want, regardless.

And I’m sure in South Africa there will be great determination to protect the Currie Cup, a large portion of which is already being played concurrent with the Rugby Championship. In New Zealand the ITM Cup provincial championship remains an important part of the structure, but falls into a fairly marked third priority now behind the All Blacks and Super Rugby. I’m sure South Africans will guard against that happening in the Currie Cup.

But the push by the IRPA carries real weight, and I suspect rugby is in for its first real test of player power, certainly since the WRC-led “Rugby War” of 1995.

A crisis was eventually averted back then, when Louis Luyt stepped in and separated enough twigs from the bunch to snap them, but there is ample evidence in other sports where the players have flexed their muscle to force change.

The cricket revolution in the late 70s was largely player driven (even if Kerry Packer was paying for it), the players started taking over tennis in the early 90s, American baseball and basketball have both had seasons destroyed by player strikes, and rugby league in Australia split in half in the mid 90s.

I’m sure the IRPA don’t want it to go anywhere near that sort of drastic measure. They say a strike is a last resort, but clearly it is one course of action they could pursue, and they appear to have support right around the major nations.

I’m fairly confident that rugby will do all it can to avoid such a conflict, so I think it’s fair to say that while we are never going to see an integrated global season, there’s a chance we might end up with the next best thing within a couple of years.

The other major issue confronting Sanzar is the issue of further expansion.

I understand that the South African union regard a sixth team as a non negotiable which will force a change of structure again, because you can’t have six teams in one conference and five in the others.

As I mentioned in a previous column, there is interest in bringing in some new territories. Argentina is a logical step, given their arrival in the Rugby Championship, and if they were able to bring back some of their European-based talent they could put a strong team or two in.

New Zealand and Australia are keen on moving into Asia, especially Japan.

The obvious reason for this, even if they won’t admit it, is money. Japanese rugby is rich, because the industrial giants own the teams. At the moment they are sparing no expense trying to outdo each other in signing foreign rock stars, and there is an element of “if we can’t beat them, then perhaps we can get them to join us” about them being asked to join Sanzar..

Besides, it would surely help Japanese rugby, because there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest their big spending on foreign players under the existing structure has done a thing to improve the fortunes of the national team.

But because the Japanese game is so introspective there are doubts that they want Sanzar as much as elements within Sanzar want them, but if they can be persuaded then eventually the Super Rugby competition is going to start blowing out towards 20 teams - there is also a lot of emotional support among New Zealand fans for a Pacific Islands team.

The conundrum is if the competition is only going to get bigger, but the players won’t allow it to be any longer, then the only solution might be to make the conference system more distinct.

One possibility – and I hasten to add it is just a possibility I have heard from a good source – is that South Africa and South America, and possibly North America as well, could go into one conference, New Zealand Australia and Japan into another, and that there would not by any inter-conference play until the playoffs. In other words something akin to the Heineken Cup in Europe, where there is pool play, and then the top qualifiers meet in the playoffs. That would mean no SA v NZ matches in the “regular” season, which a lot of people might not like.

There are plenty of other ideas being floated, and reaching agreement on any changes is going to be tricky. Sanzar has always been a coalition driven by the self interest of the three individual members, and who knows, we could end up with exactly what we have now.

But I somehow doubt it will remain the same. Saru's position on a sixth team alone guarantees a change.

I’d be interested in what South African fans think.

In the meantime I have the upcoming weekend off. It's probably the last of those I’ll get until November, and I am taking the family off to the sunshine (hopefully) of Fiji for a week.

I’m sure I’ll find a TV set somewhere to watch what should be a couple of massively important games this weekend.

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