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South Africa pull-out dooms Super Rugby after 25 years

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The future of Super Rugby is in doubt after South Africa pulled most of its teams, effectively ending the once-admired competition. AFP

South Africa pull-out dooms Super Rugby after 25 years

New Zealand’s rugby chief admitted the future of the club game in the southern hemisphere was unclear on Wednesday after South Africa pulled most of their teams out of Super Rugby, effectively ending the once-admired competition after 25 years.

NZR chief executive Mark Robinson said the next step must be taken quickly after South Africa – whose national team won the World Cup last year – opted to explore joining Europe’s PRO14.

South Africa’s move, prompted by New Zealand’s decision to push for a domestic or trans-Tasman Super Rugby competition, spells doom for the series which was first weakened by over-expansion and then plunged into crisis by the coronavirus pandemic.

However, Robinson said it was impossible to predict what the future may hold for Super Rugby teams after the departure of South Africa’s Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers.

“There’s far too much uncertainty at present around what the future might look like in different horizons. They’re changing on a daily and weekly basis,” Robinson said.

“There’s going to be a change . . . and it’s something that we’ve simply got to work out quickly,” he added.

The All Blacks and Springboks are international rugby’s most successful teams, with three World Cup titles each, and the loss of South African competition deprives Super Rugby of much of its quality.

NZR earlier attempted to play down the pull-out, saying it was “no surprise”. It follows months of turmoil since the pandemic halted Super Rugby in March, prompting New Zealand, Australia and South Africa to go it alone with temporary domestic tournaments.

Quarantine row

On Tuesday, South Africa said it was seeking entry for four teams into Europe’s PRO14, criticising New Zealand’s “unilateral decision” to pursue a domestic or trans-Tasman version of Super Rugby.

Their withdrawal confirms that South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby (Sanzaar) will be unable to deliver the 14-team Super Rugby competition already promised to broadcasters in a five-year deal.

Globe-straddling Super Rugby, long attacked as unwieldy despite its attractive, free-flowing rugby, had planned to cut down to 14 teams from 15 next year, by kicking out Japan’s Sunwolves. But the pandemic has now proved the catalyst for its disintegration.

Sanzaar refused to comment on South Africa’s move, saying it would wait until an executive council meeting expected in the coming weeks. Rugby Australia also declined to comment when contacted by AFP.

South Africa said the world-champion Springboks remained committed to Sanzaar’s four-nation Rugby Championship, whose scheduling has sparked complaints by the All Blacks as their players face spending Christmas in quarantine.

While the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers look to join PRO14, South Africa’s Cheetahs will be available for a potential ‘Super Series’ formed from the wreckage of Super Rugby – as long as their participation is “cost-neutral at least”.

‘Extraordinary pressure’

“Our members are excited about the prospect of closer alignment with PRO Rugby and seeking a northern hemisphere future,” said SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux.

“However, we would not have been taking this decision but for actions elsewhere,” he added, referring to the decisions of New Zealand and Australia.

A significant part of the PRO14 appeal for South Africa is the time zone, with the widest difference with Britain and Ireland being two hours for six months each year, compared with 11 hours for New Zealand.

Through the quarter-century of Super Rugby, South Africans have had to watch matches from New Zealand and Japan before breakfast, from Australia in mid-morning and from Argentina after midnight.

New Zealand is working on plans for a second domestic Super Rugby Aotearoa competition, with the possibility of its five domestic franchises being joined by a Pacific islands side.

Australia is backing a trans-Tasman competition, although the two sides have been at odds over how many Australian teams will take part.

However, Robinson denied Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan’s assertion that relations were at their “lowest ebb”.

“We’re working in extraordinary times with extraordinary pressure,” Robinson said. “We know there’s challenges. We know there’s tension but ultimately we believe in a common goal.”

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