Opinion: Why South African rugby’s move north is good for global game
That South African rugby has been picking good lines in recent seasons is rather obvious to even the most casual observer. Current Rugby World Cup champions, URC champions and a Test squad so deep that you’ll break fracking regulations just getting to the bottom of it.
However, the really impressive line that South African rugby has picked isn’t related to Lukhanyo Am or any of their 300 new options at full-back. No, the perfect line that they’ve picked is a line of longitude – more precisely GMT.
Moving their four major rugby teams into alignment with the northern hemisphere was a masterstroke that has not only benefited them but many others in the global game.
As much as we love to believe that it’s bums on seats in the stadium that keeps rugby ticking over, it isn’t. The three Ps of pies, pints and programs are no longer enough to sustain pro rugby and, whether you like it or not, TV money is where it’s at.
The South Africans move out of Super Rugby was a big risk, but it has been a tremendous success. Even a Super Rugby sycophant like me could see how impractical that league was from a TV perspective.
The away fixtures for the South African teams usually kicked off early morning and whilst it’s obviously not ideal to watch rugby through an early-morning bloodshot squint, the real issue is that few brands want to spend big bucks at that time of day.
You need only watch daytime TV to see the difference in brands that advertise in the morning compared to the evening. If you want a stairlift or life insurance, then morning TV is perfect, but it’s in the evenings where the big brands come out to play – and they are exactly the type of brands that South African rugby needs and deserves.
Their inclusion in the URC has been fantastic and an undoubted success. Probably more successful than anyone imagined. The South Africans have totally changed the league in terms of the rugby on show and therefore its appeal.
In the opening season, the Stormers won the title and three of the SA teams made the playoffs. But beyond that it has changed the style of rugby in the league.
Teams can no longer pick weakened/rotated front rows against the South Africans – if you do, you’ll be pushed around the field like a budget scrummaging machine.
The quality of their back-three players, with the likes Aphelele Fassi, Warrick Gelant and Kurt-Lee Arendse, has meant that aimless kicking is now not only wasteful but stupid.
More importantly for the league as whole, Leinster may no longer have free run of the place. As pleasurable as it is to watch Leinster play rugby, a little shake-up at the top will benefit everyone.
But perhaps the biggest plus of the South African switch is the unforeseen, sundry benefits – Super Rugby being the main beneficiary. Many thought that the split would be hugely detrimental to Super Rugby, but it’s been quite the opposite.
South Africa’s move north has forced Super Rugby to embrace its Pacific Island family and create a tournament that lives perfectly within its own time zones – the inclusion of Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua has been nothing short of magical in every regard.
The political benefits are also big with regards to Australian rugby. Once the minor player between South Africa and New Zealand, they are now in the position to be far more demanding of their Kiwi neighbors when it comes to negotiating the next deal.
Above all, South African rugby’s move north has been great for those who wish to see rugby progress over the next 50 years.
There are, of course, those who would rather see their teams play no further than seven miles from their front door and shun any opportunity to expand rugby. But rugby must not concern itself with what it was like 50 years ago, but rather where it will be in 50 years’ time.
‘It used to be all fields around here when I was young’ isn’t an attitude that rugby can afford to take. Otherwise, it will be all fields around here, but with soccer posts stuck in them.
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