With just a few short weeks to go before the start of the Super Rugby Championship, South Africa has announced that they will be pulling their teams from the tournament. The entirety of the championship will now have just six Tests between the end of October and December, all staged in just one country.
New Zealand’s push to hold the championship domestically due to health concerns has put the World Cup champions in a difficult position. SARU has opted to refrain from resuming the season, citing player welfare as a major motivation for stepping away from this year’s competition and voting to expand teams in the European PRO14 League.
Early Delays and Cancellations
The beginning of the Super Rugby 2020 season was cut short in March after New Zealand announced that incoming travelers would need to adhere to a 14-day quarantine schedule upon arrival. SANZAAR suspended the season indefinitely, opting to instead organize the Super Rugby Aotearoa, a domestic round-robin tournament, in the meantime before picking the 2020 season back up in October.
Other tournaments had similar timelines, like the Six Nations rugby fixtures that were delayed until an unknown date, eventually seeing an announcement for October. Unfortunately, further delays may be in store for both Super Rugby and Six Nations as a result of the Springboks decision and revenue loss.
A Complex Situation
As it is, New Zealand’s desire for a trans-Tasman tournament has put the South African teams in a problematic position. South African Rugby chief Jurie Roux said the withdrawal was disappointing but that the current situation is impacting players and bringing its own logistical challenges among other things.
Part of the concern was that while other teams resumed play domestically in June, South African teams have had a much longer shutdown and have only had about 80 minutes of game-time to prepare before potentially heading to Australia.
Now, the South African Rugby teams will be working with PRO Rugby Championship in the PRO14 League, replacing the slots of Cheetahs and the Southern Kings with the Bulls, Lions, Sharks, and Stormers. The Springboks may remain part of SANZAAR partnerships in the future, but their withdrawal in tandem with the expansion into the PRO14 does not bode well for SARU’s investment in the southern hemisphere.
“Our members are excited about the prospect of closer alignment with PRO Rugby Championship and seeking a northern hemisphere future, but we would not have been taking this decision but for actions elsewhere,” Jurie Roux said about the decision reached by SARU.
The Cost of Withdrawing
Super Rugby has attempted to expand its reach in recent years, adding Argentina and Japan to its roster before dropping the Japanese team this year. With that reach diminished, the absence of South Africa from the Rugby Championship may have more consequences than just a reduced season.
Rugby World Cup winners, The Springboks would have been a huge draw to audiences interested in the tournament and South African fans make up the majority portion of Super Rugby viewers. Broadcasting partnerships are sure to be disrupted by the limited season and the lack of teams, putting SANZAAR between a rock and hard place.
They are not the only ones at risk, however, as South African Rugby stands to lose a reported $18 million by not participating. Not only that, but there are rumors that SANZAAR may seek to hold SARU responsible for financial losses caused by the sudden withdrawal. Tensions are high for southern hemisphere rugby, so who knows this will come to pass.
What Now for Southern Hemisphere
For now, organizers are hopeful that returning to the former Tri-Nations tournament format will be enough to sustain the Rugby Championship. There’s no telling what the departure of South African teams will mean for Super Rugby long-term.