The season after winning the Rugby World Cup has been nothing like any South African rugby supporter could have ever imagined when 2020 started. Despite the many negatives about and the challenges facing the country, there is still a rugby high about. The positivity has overshadowed the reality. In the months ahead, the more difficulty the national economy faces with the numerous factors that contribute to it, the more that reality will come to the fore. It bears a direct relationship to professional rugby in South Africa as a going concern.
For now, adding to the rugby future optimism is the imminent move from SANZAAR Super Rugby to a larger presence in European PRO rugby. “Pro” is been ambiguous because mainstream media has certainly hopped on board to pointing out the pros of the four Super Rugby teams becoming part of a Pro16 tournament.
Huge travel cost savings
A number put out was a saving of R90m per annum. This is massive! Super rugby depended on local teams making month long tours to Australasia. The duration and the cost of flights were emphasised in the past but not much was said about hotel accommodation and hiring training facilities for those extended periods – obviously an exorbitant portion of the high costs. PRO rugby is likely to consist of shorter, cheaper tours, just more of them.
Potentially better sponsorship deals
There are individual European clubs with bigger annual salary budget than just about all of professional rugby in SA combined. This is thanks to the extravagant million and billionaire owners who don’t mind their investments running at a loss just as long as it ticks another important box to them like social standing or related profit making business spinoffs. Broadcasting contracts and corporate sponsorship deals of these Euro clubs make local efforts look mickey mouse. Due to the big money coming in, the offers on the table from Europe (and Japan for that matter) make the market related price of keeping a top professional at home astronomical and in a growing number of cases, simply unaffordable. Australia and New Zealand may have healthier economies than SA’s but for reasons unique to them, have not been able to escape the top player drain either. Instead of swimming against the tide, PRO rugby offers SA the potential to tap into richer markets. Generally rugby attendances and interest is on the up in Europe as well. The SARU objective is to make PRO rugby bigger and better than ever before and to cash in on that success. More money could mean SA teams holding onto better players for longer. The research here is still surfacy though. Sometimes grass isn’t greener on the other side. Time will tell.
More favourable time zones
Australia and New Zealand are very fond of Friday night rugby. This meant between 9am and 12:30pm kickoffs SA time. Not exactly idea. Lower viewership in itself was a negative and contributed to reductions in sponsorship deals. Also for the travelling players – jet lag. European being on more or less the same times zone means favourable kickoff times on Fridays and on weekends too plus fresher players. More rugby braais etc.
Creating a winning culture
It’s something that is being underplayed: The importance of doing well. Winning a lot more than losing especially against foreign teams isn’t just good for player morale, its great for business. No doubt a lot was learnt from competing and losing a lot more often than winning against strong New Zealand Super Rugby franchise team over the years. The big question is how much of that intel has gone into improving Super Rugby and test rugby success? South Africa’s Rugby World Cup success didn’t come from mimicking All Black rugby. If anything the 2019 success had the elements of structured Northern Hemisphere Six Nations rugby, just executed a lot better than any international team up North was able to do. Europe offers SA the chance to adapt to techniques, tactics and training methods that are perhaps more in line with SA’s inherent rugby culture. There is no shortage of opinions that SA players who move abroad are molded into better players. Conversely coaching and the professional nature of European clubs may have a lot to do with this. The main point is if more SA teams win more games, it will be a huge plus factor. Fan apathy hurts domestic rugby revenue streams. Winning in SA means more bums in seats, bigger TV audiences and ultimately more revenue. More friends accepting rugby braai invitations…
The level of entry
While Super Rugby is one tier down from test rugby, PRO rugby is not. The Irish, Welsh and Scottish teams in PRO rugby see the EPCR Cup (Old Heineken Cup) as the bee’s knees. It’s the opportunity for them to take on the best clubs from the bigger and richer English and French top flight. PRO rugby is therefore more of a Currie Cup level competition up North. It’s just that in SA, the season is segmented to have Super Rugby at the start and Currie Cup rugby at the end, and in Europe its all mixed into one pot with a proper business end of the season for all club competitions. It goes without saying that playing in the EPCR Cup and related Challenge Cup are the bigger opportunities that SARU has to work hard to gain entry to. The Six Nations is the cherry on top. Watch it and it is easy to understand why it is regarded as the best rugby competition on earth.
The season and offseason
If there were concerns in the past about a regular Super Rugby season that started in the hot summer month of February, well now what? SA teams could be playing rugby thought what was once the offseason break. Test rugby windows are likely to remain the same – June and November. The bottom-line is scheduling and player management will take on a new dimension.
While part of SANZAAR, the rugby public had a confidence that SARU’s opinion carried significant weight, at times reported to be the strongest member of the South Hemisphere organisation. In PRO rugby it could be a long time before SARU has a meaningful say. Case in point – no place for the Cheetahs. The perfect solution for SA rugby would have been a PRO17, which included the Cheetahs. If one things about it 17 teams allows for each team to play each other once in an 8 home game 8 away game format. Perfect but not a selling point when you’re the new junior partner in an arrangement.
Europeans tend to have a different acquired taste which often hones in on how well setpieces and tactical set plays are executed. It’s consists of a purist rugby-loving public that does not necessarily see the downside of start-stop rugby and raves over a scrum penalty won like a schoolboy spectator would over a body check. This might not be to many Saffas’ liking at first, maybe ever.