It’s with a certain amount of reservation that we have learned in the last day of the “exciting new changes” to come for the Rugby Championship.
Sanzaar announced on Wednesday with a big “rah-rah” that its four member countries – South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina – have committed to another 10 years of the Championship, until 2030.
A big wow was made of a 12-match schedule and a “mini-tour” when the competition hopefully resumes next year, following the Covid pandemic this year which forced the Springboks to pull out of the competition, which has been rebranded the Tri-Nations.
But what has essentially changed, and what was really announced about the Rugby Championship?
And more importantly, what could be changed, if anything?
No doubt the competition needs some sort of new life injected into it, but it’s already played on a home-and-away basis and all the teams already go on a mini-tour each season.
The Boks, for example, have over the last few years started the competition with a home game against Argentina, followed by an away game against Argentina, which is then followed by a “mini-tour” of Australia and New Zealand.
Those matches have then been followed by home Test matches against Australia and New Zealand – in essence also a home and away scenario as well as a “mini-tour”.
SA Rugby said on Wednesday in a statement they “welcomed the announcement by Sanzaar”, confirming a “refreshed” approach by the four partner unions, without actually elaborating what these exciting changes would be.
While the Boks look set to continue their participation in the Rugby Championship next year, the four former Super Rugby franchises will no longer form part of the Super Rugby competition, but play in Europe, in an expanded Pro 16 competition.
This could now become a real balancing act: Four franchises, with many Boks, playing in a Europe-based competition for some part of the year and then, as the Boks, the same players will head ‘south” as the South African national team to play in the Rugby Championship at another part of the year.
We can also ask, when will the top players in Pro 16 rugby be released to start preparing with the Boks for the visit by the British and Irish Lions in July? And, who will make these decisions – the franchises, Pro 16, World Rugby?
A further challenge will be the conditioning of the players and how this will impact the Boks: In Europe the fields are heavier and the game slower, while in the south (and in South African in particular, for the visit by the Lions, and in the Rugby Championship), the fields are drier and the game faster.
While SA Rugby said they welcomed the changes announced to the Rugby Championship with their Sanzaar partners, they did also indicate that the new strategies were still in a discussion phase.
There are, however, many questions that remain unanswered, and one’s got to wonder whether it is indeed, the best for South African rugby for the biggest franchises to play some of the time in Europe, but most of the time in the southern hemisphere, against completely different players and styles of rugby, as the Springboks. These are interesting times for our rugby.