WELLINGTON (Reuters) – There is nothing more traditional than the Canterbury Crusaders as Super Rugby champions but a record eighth title for the New Zealand powerhouse will do nothing to remove the question marks over the future of the competition.
The 25-17 victory over South Africa’s the Lions in Johannesburg that secured the Crusaders a first title since 2008 on Saturday also brought an end to the failed experiment of an 18-team competition after just two seasons.
Gone is the confidence of 18 months ago when rugby administrators were praising the idea of bringing in teams from Argentina and Japan and talking about further ‘inevitable’ expansion into untapped markets in Asia and North America.
Instead, against a backdrop of falling revenues and fan interest, southern hemisphere rugby’s governing body SANZAAR went back to the future by cutting three teams from the competition for next season.
While South Africa has already dropped two, the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) is still locked in the messy process of choosing to cull either the Melbourne Rebels or Perth-based Western Force.
The Force, who rallied significant fan support in Perth and then received the backing of mining magnate Andrew Forrest, began arbitration with the ARU last week.
The ownership of the Rebels, however, became clouded late on Friday when the ARU asked the franchise to clarify their status after becoming aware their licence had been transferred to the Victorian Rugby Union.
South African Rugby had no such issues and cut adrift the Port Elizabeth-based Kings and Bloemfontein’s Cheetahs at the end of the regular season.
Both sides, however, said last week they had joined Europe’s Pro-12 league, expanding that competition involving clubs from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy to 14 teams.
It is that decision which could have the greatest ramifications for the future of Super Rugby after the current broadcast agreement expires in 2020.
The South Africans have long considered that their future ultimately lies in Europe, where the time zones fit more naturally and broadcast revenue is more lucrative.
Any possible move away from SANZAAR competitions is a major concern for the likes of New Zealand, where there is as much regard for the benefits of regular exposure to South African teams as there is for the cash that flows from the republic.
Australia’s players’ union has suggested a realignment of the competition with Australia and New Zealand going it alone along with Japan and a team from the Pacific islands.
That would take Australasian rugby back to amateur days of 1992 when a forerunner of Super Rugby, the Super Six, involved the Fiji team, three New Zealand provincial sides and two Australian state teams.
Although the Pacific island nations have rugby talent aplenty, the infrastructure, revenue opportunities and player pathways bear no comparison to South Africa.
The viability of Super Rugby on the islands has been tested over the last two seasons, however, with the Crusaders and Waikato Chiefs blazing the trail in Suva in 2016 and repeating the exercise this year.
The Auckland Blues also took a game to Apia in June but, while both Suva games were well attended, that clash with the Queensland Reds was played in front of a half-empty stadium with the blame being put on high ticket prices.
Australia would have the most to gain from such a realignment with the sport having experienced a major downturn even in its traditional strongholds.
With their player pool spread thinly, none of their five teams managed a single victory over a New Zealand side this year in 26 attempts.
To rub salt into the ARU’s wounds, the Force won six games this season, as many as the Australian conference champion ACT Brumbies, and they signed off, possibly for good, with a 40-11 thrashing of the New South Wales Waratahs.