CAPE TOWN – The Sunwolves getting the Super Rugby chop was the best decision Sanzaar could have made.
The southern hemisphere governing body on Friday announced that the Japanese outfit would only feature in the competition until the end of next season.
The other team that would see the move as a hospital pass other than the Sunwolves are perhaps the Aussies.
The statement from Sanzaar said the Japan Rugby Football Union decided “Super Rugby no longer remains the best pathway for the development of players for the national team”, with Sanzaar stating that the JRFU could no longer financially underwrite the team’s future Super Rugby participation.
Yeah, maybe the timing of the announcement wasn’t ideal as the Tokyo-based team were just starting to look a better outfit. And that will have even those who have previously complained about the convoluted and diluted competition screaming “why?” at their impending exit.
But as unpopular as the decision might be, it’s the right one. For at least 50% of the teams that will remain in Super Rugby post the 2021 cut, it’s the right one. Firstly, the reduction to 14 teams will do away with the frustrating conference system that was introduced in 2011, a system that became increasingly convoluted as teams continued to join the competition.
So welcome back, round-robin. Now back to that 50%. For the South African franchises, the Sunwolves’ departure will mean less travel. And considering just how taxing that travel is, the sigh of relief coming from the Saffa camp is totally understandable.
For the New Zealanders, the physical and mental strain of having to play like eight derbies a season – and that’s before the knock-outs – has been huge. And I mention the New Zealanders in particular because of the quality of competition between them and the stance they’ve held for so long.
Sure, it might be exactly those derbies that catch the eye of the pocket-heavy interested, and there are few things fans enjoy more than a traditional local battle (take the Bulls and Stormers, for example). But it would never have resulted in a competition that would be fair towards New Zealand, unless the majority of SA and Australia’s teams suddenly take their game to another level. And that lack of strength versus strength is exactly one of the things that took away from the competition’s appeal.
So, the proposed return-to-old format will also be way, way fairer, especially towards the Kiwis, also for obvious (conference) reasons.
For the Australians the decision could bring something less positive.
With more focus on the Japanese Top League to be expected following the Sunwolves’ departure, the lucrative lure to the Asian competition will be threatening. Even more so if that lure comes in the form of a full-time basis. And if they manage to pull in more Australian players, it could negatively affect the strength of their Super sides.
Looking at the Sunwolves, one also has to question how much their Super Rugby involvement did for the growth of the game in Japan. Sure, their matches were at times well-supported, but you just have to have had a look at the composition of their match-day squads to see that their national side wouldn’t have benefited much from it.
Many might see this decision as short-sighted. And in a way they have a point – SA, Australia and the Jaguares still have to improve, and do so consistently, if the competition is to really flourish. But with the Sunwolves gone and the resulting return to a round-robin format, Sanzaar have finally delivered on years of lip service.
And it’s a move that should win back rugby’s key stakeholders – the fans.