Fears mount over travel, credibility and competitiveness of Super Rugby expansion
As mounting problems threaten to derail Super Rugby's controversial expansion, defiant powerbrokers remain confident next year's competition won't be a farce.
Questions around credibility and competitiveness of the competition and concerns about more long-haul travel for players are overshadowing what was meant to be Sanzar's bold new era.
Less than three months out from kickoff, two of the three new teams being promoted into southern hemisphere's premier rugby competition are scrambling to fill their rosters and one is yet to sign a coach.
While Argentina's Los Jaguares, whose squad features at least 23 players from the national team, are held up as the shining light in the push to 18 teams next year, the readiness of the Sunwolves from Japan and South Africa's Southern Kings threatens to undermine expansion's credibility.
From a New Zealand perspective, it is understood travel is causing major frustrations – both from the players' and management point of view coping with short turnarounds as well as logistical battles booking big numbers with travel agents.
The Chiefs and defending champion Highlanders will be forced to endure an extra leg from South Africa to Argentina via Brazil (10,500km, 11 hours one way) on top of their one week in the republic next year. Traditionally, Kiwi teams would long-haul travel just once – to South Africa – each year (for a fortnight). This is still the case for the Blues, Hurricanes and Crusaders in 2016. But in the coming years they, too, are bound for Argentina.
New Zealand coaches were unanimous in their request for a bye week to be worked into the draw upon returning home from South America, but that fell on deaf ears. Preparations for the next match after their return will be severely compromised with an abbreviated training week and different time zones adding significant challenges.
Next year the Highlanders will return home from Argentina to face the Chiefs in a pivotal final-round clash. After their own return from South America, the Chiefs will be taking on the Force and then get on another plane to Canberra.
In a wide-ranging interview, New Zealand Rugby general manager of strategic planning and relationships Nigel Cass attempted to downplay fears.
"Clearly that travel adds another dimension to it but it's no different to what the All Blacks go through so it's not completely unknown," Cass said. "That is going to be one of the things we have to look at.
"The idea with the travel is it's broadly similar to what they've gone through previously with a two-week long haul journey."
But there remains the sense New Zealand teams in 2016 will be guinea pigs in a rugby experiment.
"I'm sure we'll go through next year and learn some things from the Kiwi teams that are doing that," Cass said. "There will be some challenges and we'll have to take those lessons and build them into the draw going forward."
Further frustrations stem from the fact the new format does not create an even playing field. The convoluted schedule has the Stormers, Cheetahs and Bulls avoiding New Zealand teams in pool play. Instead they twice face the Sunwolves, who are widely expected to be a walkover.
Given New Zealand teams have won 13 of the 20 Super Rugby titles, those three South African sides appear to have been granted the easiest path to topping the competition and gaining crucial home advantage in the playoffs. Essentially, the strongest teams play each other the most.
There continues to be concerns about the competitiveness of the shambolic Kings and Sunwolves.
The embattled Kings are already under administration from the South African Rugby Union, with players and staff owed up to four months' salary. There were demands this week for Eastern Province president Cheeky Watson to resign amid claims of players' and employees' marriages falling apart because of the financial strain lumbered on them, and threats of court action from hooker Michael van Vuuren over the unpaid wages.
This all comes two weeks after head coach Brent Janse van Rensburg resigned two weeks after being appointed – with no explanation given – and at a time when many of South Africa's leading players are opting to ply their trade abroad with the weak rand battling to retain their best talent.
In Tokyo, meanwhile, the situation also appears grim. Acting Sanzar chief executive Brendan Morris travelled to Japan last week to try and advance proceedings after coach Eddie Jones bailed from Japan's new Super Rugby side after the Rugby World Cup. Jones later agreed to coach the Stormers – then walked away from them in favour of the England national job. In between, he led Japan to a memorable 34-32 win over South Africa at the World Cup before standing down.
"Eddie's departure as national coach and the flow-on to the Super Rugby position has stretched the timelines out," Cass said. "They need to appoint a coach – we've made that very clear and they are telling us that is very close to being confirmed.
"We would be more comfortable if the coaching side of things was completely in place but we know they're working on it and Sanzar is doing everything they possibly can."
Cass rejects a prevailing belief that expansion is purely a commercial decision designed to boost broadcast revenue in new territories rather than improve the competition for fans – particularly if, as expected, the Kings and Sunwolves fail to perform.
"With any team coming into the competition there are speed bumps, and there are indications of that with the Kings and Japanese team," Cass said. "But we're working through those and we're keeping a close eye on that. The general sense talking to the CEOs there's a feeling of excitement.
"We've got this revised competition in part because the fans were telling us it'd be great to bring teams from other nations in.
"Is it completely risk free? No. But we think the added excitement it will bring is worth going through the issues that you inevitably have with change.
"The key is the new teams are of a standard they can challenge a number of other teams and hopefully pick up a few wins. If they do better than that, fantastic.
"We know it takes a little bit of time for teams to get used to the standard of competition and travel. All of these teams will have that challenge. Our fan base understands that.
"In year one it's about the excitement of seeing something a bit different."
With talk of further expansion, concerns may grow around the breeding ground for future All Blacks being diluted. The benefits of maintaining strong and regular challenges on the field was evident at the World Cup, which featured all-southern hemisphere semifinals.
The fear is that as weak teams are included, New Zealand players will become less battle-hardened.
"I think the 2016 competition does protect that but we've got to continue to review it," Cass said.
"If we're looking at future structures, that has to be one of the questions we answer.
"A winning All Black side is what drives our involvement in Super Rugby."
Super or shambolic? We will start to know in under three months' time.
SUPER RUGBY ISSUES:
- New Zealand's Chiefs and Highlanders have extra leg from South Africa to Argentina via Brazil (10,672km, 11 hours) on top of their trip to the republic.
- South African teams will have to go to Singapore (8600, 11hr)
- NZ supposed to have bye on return home from South America. Didn't happen.
- Short training weeks compromise preparations after long-haul travel.
- South Africa's Stormers, Cheetahs and Bulls don't play any Kiwi teams and face weak Japanese franchise twice. This gives them the best chance of any teams to qualify first in new two-conference format.
- In 15 games, NZ teams play Kiwi teams six times, the five Australian teams, South Africa's Lions, Sharks and Kings and the Argentinean team Los Jaguares.
- Roster includes 26 Pumas.
- Spend six for the first eight weeks away from home – two weeks in SA, three weeks in NZ and one week in Japan.
- Sunwolves left in a hole by coach Eddie Jones's shock exit to the Stormers (then England).
- Yet to appoint a replacement coach
- Weak roster undermined by the fact the franchise can't attract enough players from lucrative Japanese Top League competition.
- Play three home games against SA opposition in Singapore (5300km, 6.5 hours).
- Ugly stretch of three weeks in SA, two at home, one in Singapore; two weeks in Australia, one in Tokyo, then two weeks again back in SA.
Southern Kings of South Africa
- Port Elizabeth franchise under administration from South Africa Rugby Union, with Eastern Province in near bankrupt state.
- Players and staff owed up to four months' salary, causing major unrest, including claims of divorce.
- Academy coach Deon Davids appointed after head coach Brent Janse van Rensburg resigned two weeks ago.
- Player group calling for club president Cheeky Watson to resign.
- Three new teams take competition from 15 to 18 teams.
- Two conferences:
- Australasian conference comprises five NZ and five Australian teams.
- South African conference contains two groups: Bulls, Stormers, Cheetahs and Sunwolves in one (they don't play any Kiwi teams in pool play); Kings, Lions, Sharks and Los Jaguares in the other.
- Teams play six matches in own conference, five against an Australasian conference, four against a South African conference.
- Eight-team finals series featuring the four conference winners (top Kiwi team; top Australian team; SA Group I and SA Group II winners), the three next-highest-ranked teams from the Australasian group and the next highest-ranked team from the South African group.
- 15 games, two byes in pool play.
South African Conference
Round 1: Starts February 26
Blues v Highlanders, Auckland
Brumbies v Hurricanes, Canberra
Cheetahs v Argentina, Bloemfontein
Japan v Lions, Tokyo
Crusaders v Chiefs, Christchurch
Waratahs v Reds, Sydney
Force v Rebels, Perth
Kings v Sharks, Port Elizabeth
Stormers v Bulls, Cape Town
- Sunday Star Times