Creating two new teams in Super Rugby, to represent the Aviva and Pro12 competitions, would bolster the commercial pulling power of the South and playing standards in the North. It's a global game so why not think big?
By Alex Shore
The southern hemisphere governing body SANZAAR is keen to explore new markets and commercial opportunities, increasing their ability to compete financially with their northern counterparts.
The northern hemisphere nations are eager to improve the attacking skill-sets of their players, particularly at Test level, in order to bridge the long-standing divide between the two hemispheres.
There does seem to be a solution which could, in theory, solve each hemisphere’s problems in one fell swoop.
Disclaimer. Progressing any further into this article will expose you to fanciful proposals and logistical nightmares, but hopefully a fair amount of common sense, too.
So, without any further ado… why don’t the Aviva Premiership and Guinness Pro12, under the flags of their respective national unions, provide two new teams to the southern hemisphere’s premiere club tournament, Super Rugby?
Madness? Impossible? Someone call the asylum? Bear with me.
Firstly, as the northern and southern hemisphere seasons overlap, there is no possibility of sending down an established club, region or province. Instead, select teams would have to be packaged together.
Premiership and Pro12 sides wouldn’t be keen to allow their senior players to participate, requiring them instead to be part of their domestic and European campaigns, but they would likely be much more amenable to seeing their younger, developing players have stints Down South. This would provide a platform for them to improve and see regular game time in a tournament that prizes ambitious and clinical attacking play above all else.
In fairness, younger players have seen plenty of action in this condensed season thanks to the World Cup last year, but it’s not the norm in the northern hemisphere. With more southern hemisphere stars set to move north this coming summer, it’s a problem that is only likely to get worse before it gets better.
With European age-grade rugby getting more competitive and more skilful with each passing year, these young players, most of whom would be in their early 20s, are more than capable of making an impact in Super Rugby if given the chance, much as their Kiwi, Australian and South African counterparts do week in, week out.
Below are two XVs from both competitions, consisting of players who have found opportunities hard to come by this season, as an example of the type of team that could be put together.
Guinness Pro12 XV
- Luke Garrett (Dragons)
- George Turner (Edinburgh)
- Dillon Lewis (Blues)
- Alexander Thompson (Ulster)
- Scott Cummings (Glasgow)
- Harri Keddie (Dragons)
- Oli Griffiths (Dragons)
- Lorcan Dow (Ulster)
- Tomos Williams (Blues)
- Ross Byrne (Leinster)
- Mattia Bellini (Zebre)
- Api Pewhairangi (Connacht)
- David Johnston (Munster)
- Jordan Williams (Scarlets)
- Billy Dardis (Leinster)
Aviva Premiership XV
- Beno Obano (Bath)
- Gerard Ellis (London Irish)
- Biyi Alo (Saracens)
- Huw Taylor (Worcester)
- Sam Skinner (Exeter)
- Charlie Beckett (Leicester)
- Lewis Ludlam (Northampton)
- James Chisholm (Harlequins)
- James Mitchell (Sale)
- Alex Lozowski (Wasps)
- Zach Kibirige (Newcastle)
- Max Clark (Bath)
- Joe Marchant (Harlequins)
- Nathan Earle (Saracens)
- Mat Protheroe (Gloucester)
An accord between the Premiership clubs to each provide three or four players to the squad would be conceivable, especially if the RFU were to offer compensation and bear the burden of running costs for the select side, and Premiership Rugby were able to make any player who is contributed to the squad exempt from the club’s salary cap.
An agreement may be a little more challenging to brook with the Pro12 sides, as each nation would want significant representation in the squad. There would likely be a smaller Italian presence in the squad than Irish, Welsh and Scottish, so divvying up the financial costs of the side would be an unenviable task. It would be a tightrope to walk but one that would have real benefits for those unions and the Pro12 moving forward.
Of course, neither team would have a realistic hope of lifting the title but for the northern hemisphere nations, these teams would be about skill development, not titles or accolades.
It would certainly require a large amount of club and country cooperation, something which the home nations have not historically thrived at. That said, there are relatively amicable agreements in place at the moment and there are clear positives for both the clubs and the countries in this proposal, so again, in theory, it could work.
Any side entering Super Rugby would need to be organised and run by the RFU and WRU/SRU/IRFU/FIR, rather than the organisations that run the domestic divisions. As such, the Premiership and Pro12 clubs would essentially be loaning players to the select sides and the financial compensation demanded would likely be considerable.
That required level of cooperation between club and country is the sole reason the Top 14 and France have not been mentioned.
Even if those agreements could be made, the logistical issues are still many.
If the Premiership side was to play home games at Twickenham and the Pro12 side to rotate between the Principality, Aviva and BT Murrayfield, there’s no doubt there would be considerable support and attendances. Whether this is feasible, given that Super Rugby teams already play on four different continents, is debatable. Adding regular tours to Europe to the mix may be too much for the tournament to bear.
Hong Kong and Mumbai are two cities with strong British influences and/or expat populations that could host these sides, offering Super Rugby and SANZAAR doorways into the potentially highly lucrative markets of China and India. They have the stadia and infrastructure to accommodate the sides, as well as the economies to get the southern hemisphere nations salivating.
There are any number of alternatives, with Dubai, Abu Dhabi (both UAE), Delhi, Kolkata (both India), Shanghai, Beijing (both China), Jakarta (Indonesia), Seoul (South Korea), Manila (Philippines) and Bangkok (Thailand) standing out as possible venues. Another option would be to have the teams rotate their home venue between these cities, much as the Sunwolves are currently doing in Tokyo and Singapore.
Critically, all the locations listed offer exciting potential, but without established rugby teams of their own. Hosting select sides from Britain and Ireland could be quite the boon for the growth of rugby in these countries, as well as ticking the commercial box for SANZAAR.
This would require a large amount of pride swallowing in the southern hemisphere nations, however, who would see two developmental northern hemisphere sides added to their premier competition. Hopefully the increased commercial opportunities would make it far more palatable for fans, but there’s no doubt that it would receive mixed responses. That said, a weekly opportunity to beat two northern hemisphere sides would surely have its appeal.
Indeed, SANZAAR CEO Andy Marinos has been vocal on the possibilities of further expansion in Super Rugby, following the inclusions of Argentinian and Japanese sides this year. He has said there are no geographical limits to potential expansion territories that are “also commercially attractive” and even listed Europe as a possibility.
It’s fanciful and ultimately nothing more than pie in the sky at this moment in time, but it seems, at least on paper, to be a win-win situation for everyone involved.
That said, if you’re hoping to see European inclusion in Super Rugby anytime soon, you’re probably better off holding out for Mourad Boudjellal withdrawing Toulon from the Top 14…