New beginning for SA rugby as teams head north

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CAPE TOWN – Forget the naysayers. South Africa going north with the premier four franchises is a godsend for our rugby.

Less travel, minimal time zone differentiation and into the lucrative northern hemisphere market is what every player in South Africa has wished for in the last decade.

Super Rugby, when it was the Super 12, was a brilliant competition. In the past few years it was a drain on SA rugby and the players. South Africa’s finest were on a hiding to nothing. They’d have the additional two weeks away from home and ultimately take a beating overseas. If there wasn’t a home semi-final or final, then why bother?

New Zealand, despite its limited broadcasting attraction, has always held a mystique to South Africans, more so because of rugby’s international sporting isolation.

The All Blacks are revered in this country as much as the Springboks are. At times I have wondered if there is even more of a worship in South Africa for the All Blacks than there is in New Zealand.

South Africa, since its 1992 international readmission, has put all things New Zealand rugby on a pedestal and this finally has ended.

New Zealand rugby, through a bullish chief executive, went public two months ago that it was New Zealand first and the rest of the world second.

New Zealand, then, were the only rugby nation whose teams were playing in front of an audience. New Zealand would go it alone or explore a trans-Tasman competition with Australia. South Africa, before their leadership had been informed, were out of Super Rugby.

SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux and president Mark Alexander were calm in their response. They said it was news to them that South Africa would no longer be involved in the 2021 version of Super Rugby.

Roux said that he appreciated that every nation had to find a solution during Covid-19, but reiterated that he was surprised at the New Zealand Rugby Union going public with such an emphatic statement of intent.

Australia’s rugby bosses said a similar thing.

Now New Zealand have got what they wished for – a Super Rugby competition without South Africa, and possibly without Australia.

The Sanzaar relationship is such that the Rugby Championship will continue with the Springboks, but Super Rugby, as we knew it from 1996, is over.

And it is long overdue.

South African rugby’s leading franchises are best served playing in the northern hemisphere.

Everything about the northern hemisphere speaks to the good of South African rugby, from player welfare to the quality of the competition.

I don’t subscribe to the theory that South Africa’s best players have to be playing in a skewed Super Rugby competition to maintain the standards that won the Springboks the Rugby World Cup in 2019.

The All Blacks, for the past decade, have dominated international rugby. Ireland, England and Wales have consistently made up the top four. The Springboks and Wallabies have dabbled between three and seven.

It took the Boks to win the World Cup to go to number one.

Those who bemoan the apparent lack of standard in the northern hemisphere have not been following world rugby for the past five years.

The game is particularly strong in the northern hemisphere and if the Super Rugby champions played the club kings of Europe on a neutral venue, there wouldn’t be a score in the game. It would be that close.

When SA Rugby’s leadership announced earlier in the week that the Super Rugby quartet of the Stormers, Sharks, Bulls and Lions, would be going north, they finally cut the umbilical cord with New Zealand rugby.

SA rugby does not need New Zealand’s Super Rugby to be strong. South African rugby’s leadership had to make rugby decisions that would favour South Africa first, and not a Sanzaar alliance.

The Springboks, given the quality of coaching and talent, will always be competitive in the Rugby Championship.

What the decision to go north does at a franchise level is ignite interest in the game domestically and it will bring variety to the season.

Pro Rugby, with the addition of the South African franchises, will immediately become a different competition. The likes of Munster and Ulster will have to field their strongest teams and there will be the additional lure of playing in Europe’s biggest knockout competition.

That is where the money and prestige is. I don’t see the Springboks easily going into an expanded Six Nations, but I do see South African rugby, at franchise level, becoming integral to the fabric of the game up north.

Don’t bemoan the end of Super Rugby. And don’t continue to put New Zealand on that highest of pedestals. They are undeserving.

Rather applaud a new dawn in South African rugby. I can’t wait.

@mark_keohane

IOL Sport

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