Super Rugby speculation shows competition might be worth saving

Crusaders captain Sam Whitelock lifts the 2018 Super Rugby trophy MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images

There may be two years of the current Super Rugby competition to run but just what the tournament looks like from 2021 will likely generate just as much discussion as the on-field action itself across that period.

It has been reported the competition may revert to the 14-team structure that existed between 2006 and 2010, before the first iteration of the conference system in 2011.

Fairfax Media revealed the 14-team proposal was one of a number of models governing body SANZAAR is investigating, with Japan's Sunwolves the team most in the firing line.

It is uncertain whether that structure would exist as a pure round-robin format in which every team plays each other, or whether it would still require some tweaks given the competition's vast geographical spread across Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina.

Certainly retaining the Sunwolves would ease the travel burden under a 14-team framework but with Argentina an official SANZAAR partner, the future of the Union's Jaguares franchise, that reached the playoffs for the first time this year, would seemingly be assured.

Twenty-four hours on from the release of the Fairfax report, SANZAAR continued its strategy of issuing seemingly vague responses surrounding Super Rugby's future.

"The recent reports in the media around the next iteration of the Super Rugby tournament are nothing more than speculative," SANZAAR chief executive Andy Marinos said via media release.

"As a business we are presently looking at our future competition structures from 2021 onwards, a matter that has been widely reported in the media. We have not reached any definitive decisions around our future competition including the number of teams that will participate in the future structure.

"We will continue to engage with our stakeholders specifically the national unions (Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) and our broadcasters, as we plan ahead for the future and the next broadcast cycle that commences in 2021.

"If there are any changes to our structure we will communicate this at the appropriate time."

Just when that time will come is anyone's guess. But the speculation will continue, just as it will around the proposed World League concept at Test level.

What it does reflect is a period of uncertainty for the game not seen since the formation of SANZAR in its original form back in 1996, an alliance that was borne amid threats of the breakaway World Rugby Corporation being established.

But where Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were all able to get on the same page then, leading to the establishment of Super 12 and the Tri Nations, the varied interests and strengths of each of those Unions, plus the addition of Argentina, make that a far more difficult assignment more than 20 years on.

As far as the fans go, the simplicity of Super 12 and following that, Super 14, held great appeal. The fact each team played each other once, and the finals system rewarded the strongest performers -- no matter their geographical location -- ensured the competition's integrity, too.

That became unfeasible with the addition of the Jaguares and Sunwolves in 2016, after the original three-conference format had been received reasonably well. Expansion may have opened up valuable new television markets, but it did so to the detriment of the competition's structure and, more importantly, its status as a level playing field. Thankfully, the best team across the two years of the 18-team competition still lifted the trophy, albeit only after the Crusaders became just the second team to win a final in another country in defeating the Lions in Johannesburg in 2017.

If the Sunwolves are to be sent packing from the competition, Super Rugby would be casting off its weakest link and one that requires an influx of foreign players just to be competitive. Sure, some will end up representing Japan down the road but for the likes of Wallabies back-rower Sean McMahon, they exist as an opportunity to augment a Japanese Top League salary once that competition concludes.

But in that situation an opportunity exists for Super Rugby to throw open its borders completely, and allow players to join teams outside their home Union all the while retaining eligibility at Test level. By embracing globalisation and allowing players to experience life in another country, but still have them under watch in Super Rugby, could help to reinvigorate the competition.

But that outcome is highly unlikely: why should New Zealand Rugby allow its key All Blacks to improve the fortunes of teams in Australia or South Africa? It would compromise their hugely successful centralised contracting system after all.

What then remains is a game that can no longer marry up its provincial competition with its status as an international sport, one that could be set for significant change at Test level itself.

Add to that the ever present threat of European and Japanese clubs, and uncertainty in exactly what South Africa Rugby Union wants to do, and the quagmire that is Super Rugby is as muddied as ever.

It seems like an unworkable situation that might end with everything old being new again. SANZAAR can issue all the elusive press releases it likes until it reveals its plan for 2021 and beyond, but you can guarantee the speculation won't go away. The governing body should take that as a positive. If anything, it shows Super Rugby might just be worth saving.