In 1995 the game turned professional and the different regions adjusted to different degrees.
In the South SANZAR was formed along with the expansion of Super Rugby to include South Africa. These professional players had enough games at the highest levels to allow them be professional.
This in part was driven by making sure that Unions had control and not other entities. In the North it continued to be professional in name only, players got paid but no real structures were put in place other than the Heineken Cup and financial burdens, may clubs went broke and the small countries lost their players.
Slowly the North put things together, marking hard decisions and have finally caught up. Countries like Japan, Georgia and Uruguay have improved while Namibia and Canada have continuously got worse as they have not changed.
There is a new shift coming in the Rugby World that may not be as easily defined as professionalism and that is time zones and private equity. In short Europe and Africa will align and will aim to control rugby.
These nations driven by CVC are getting their ducks in a row. Most likely there will be eight nations for the top two divisions with two regional conferences for the third division. The Super Cup will have a teams for each of the top three divisions that want it outside of England and France. They most like will look to bring the middle East back into Europe like years past.
It will not just be mens. As we saw with the recent u20s South Africa chose to go North instead of to the Pacific. Six Nations have this every year so easy to go to an eight nations. At Tier 2 level Europe has a strong competition already and are already going up to eight teams.
With the URC looking to bring in a women’s league, a team from Spain can be included and they would be the eighth team in the annual Woman’s 8 nations. Why would South Africa and Namibia say no to all that?
So then the question is what are the rest of the world going to do. They can’t stay individual regions by themselves because they are too small to survive.
Do they want to work together and treat each other as equals rather than the big boys and the minions?
The recent America Six Nations was short lived and had fighting between the North and South once a certain person lost the world rugby election.
We can have two competing regions of Americas and Asia/Pacific. Each would have potential, but both probably are too weak by themselves to make a counter balance but would just weaken each other rather affect Europe/Africa. I would suggest the Pacific Region which would be the two areas combined.
At the next WC, of the 19 teams that are confirmed there are 10 from Europe/Africa and 9 from the rest of the world. Portugal could potentially get the last spot ahead of the USA.
These are New Zealand Australia, Japan, Argentina, Fiji, Samoa Tonga, Uruguay and Chile.
USA, Hong Kong and Canada can also be included to bring it up to 12 teams which could be two divisions of six team, or you could have eight teams in division 1 with 4A teams in division 2 and the remaining eight teams In division three in the regional conferences of Asia, Pacific, North America and South America.
No A team would be allowed get promotions and would help keep players at home, while raising the standards of weaker nations.
Under the international level there needs to be an elite Club competition and then regional leagues. This allows regions to grow without having all the in fighting that Super Rugby had once they stopped having the top number of teams from the South African league playing in Super Rugby.
If the USA want to add more teams to the MRL the last thing they want is to have to ask permission.
Professional clubs in Europe are not the giant regions of the South.
Sometimes they only get out 5,000 or less fans, for this to work fans need to accept that not all professional clubs will meet the Super Rugby glory days of 15,000 fans and squads full of international quality players.
If Sydney can support to medium teams then let them, if RA want a team in each Territory then that is an RA issue and not for anyone else.
Finally for fans to be engaged they need more than a four-month window to engage, they need most of the year. They need things during the year to get the fans excited than four weeks into the season and fans have nothing to shout for.
Currently there are four leagues that include all but Hong Kong of the top 12 teams. The South American league already includes the regional teams.
New Zealand and Australia I feel can support eight teams each in their own leagues, though some may not have internationals playing at them.
This would give you five leagues to form the Pacific Champions Cup and Challenge Cups. As the two weakest leagues and most potential for growth for the first five years I would have the MRL and SLAR play like a conference where the winners go through to the Champions Cup and then the next two placed teams play each other with winners progressing to Champions and losers to Challange, to get the four top teams from Americas.
The winners of the MRL and SLAR would also play to get the top-ranked team.
Champions Cup would be four teams from Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Americas. Like the Champions Cup in Europe, each of the top teams go into pot 1, runners up pot 2 etc. Each group then has a team from each pot, with only one from each region, something like Group 1 , Pot 1 Japan, Pot 2 New Zealand, Pot 3 Australia, Pot 4 Americas.
Top two go through to quarters, then semis and final. Thirds down to Challenge Cup quarters, fourths thanks for coming, try harder next year.
This means that Japanese clubs will need to be good enough to make the quarters but New Zealand and Australia have the ability to get all teams through. Even if the Japanese and Americans struggle four of them will make the Challenge Cup quarters so still lots of high standard games. Each team feels they can turn over at least one team.
The Challenge Cup would also be 16 teams with 3 from Japan, 1 Hong Kong, Americas would be the losing teams from the 2v3 matches plus 4th team from each league.
New Zealand and Australia would have their remaining four teams which would include the teams from the Pacific Island that are in their league (these teams could make Champions Cup if finish top four). Group winners only go through to play the teams dropping down from the Champions Cup with quarters, semis and final.
Each Cup would have 6 group games and be over 9 weeks during the season. Can be expanded to 20 teams or 24 and can run on the same way that the European ones did it. As the teams like Hong Kong get better their players will get contracts.
Having six Pacific Cup games and 7 -13 international games is more than enough to have them be a stand alone professional outfit with the best players moving to Japan and other leagues allowing more come through. Portugal, Georgia, Uruguay and Chile are already following this model.
What would these changes mean for Australia and New Zealand because they have the most to lose from the coming changes.
If they stay in Super Rugby they end up fighting with each other over growth and development. Their league gets less and less world wide TV money and no real commercial deals. Playing the best of New Zealand and Australia is the rugby prize for the other Regions and give them an international club tournament.
These are the benefits I see for the two big nations.
1. Political block to counter the Europe/Africa block
It would be 12 nations and 4 regions v 16 nations and 2 regions, if they do nothing it’s 2 nations against the world. World Rugby voting rules would need to change as currently the 6 nations South Africa and Georgia has 22 votes out of 51, Namibia, Romania and Africa and Europe Regions would probably also vote for them as it will benefit them too, giving them 28 votes and all they need to approve multi nation tournaments.
2. They can focus on their own market and develop how they want without worrying about others
If New Zealand want 12-team round robin no one cares as the top 8 go into the Pacific Cups. We often hear how Bay of Plenty could possibly go professional that would be for the NZRU to take the risk and not effect any other nation. It also means the new team needs less players and money as only in a domestic league.
3. The Pacific Cups
This would still be Super Rugby in a more compact format but would be paid in part by the USA and Japanese money rather than scraping an empty barrel.
4. Trans Tasman teams will face other
This means styles and strategies that they don’t currently face which will help them better deal with NH styles. Each league will develop their own styles to improve their chances of competing much like the weaker URC teams focus on the breakdown to get around the Top 14s physicality.
5. It gives more fan engagements during the year
This also allows for more commercial opportunities. Imagine what could be done on a city level if the boards of the Japanese company clubs are spending a week in Nelson or Hobart, what could the chamber of commerce do with them going to Japan or USA cities for a week.
6. Gives leagues winners
Still, the top teams still have things to improve on to be the best. If Brumbies and Crusaders only met once per year in a Champions Cup final or semi that is a massive one off game and there is no second chance. Sarries and Leinster pushed each other because their league teams couldn’t.
7. A teams would get more games, as we saw in the July tests having two international squads helps loads with keeping players on side and giving new players chances to show they are ready to step up.
8. As new tournaments in the Pacific Cups, part of that could be sold off to Silver Lake without having to sell part of the union for those still in full control. Australia can sell some of the teams off to private owners or city commerce groups.
Sell the league partly off to Twiggy and finally Pacific Cups to Silver Lake. Sell domestic sponsorship for domestic league and big companies for the Pacific Cups. We also see in Europe where teams have a Champions Cup jersey to get a few more quid.
Changes are coming just like in 1995. Europe and Africa have been putting things in place over the last few years in the open. It is not just going to be club rugby as it currently is.
It’s going to be international mens, womens and u20s. If the rest of the world don’t act together they will be eaten together and the cost of making it work will only go up each year as we are seeing in soccer.
No one likes a regressing region and the South Pacific may be seen as that if it carries on as it is without adapting. You make deals why you are in a position of strength not when you actually need Japan and America but they don’t need/want you.
Finally let’s talk about why kids choose the sport they do. It comes down to statistical numbers and your chances of making it. In Soccer kids in Portugal, Begium and Netherlands stay at home because they have a better chance of being a professional player in that country.
Getting lots of real experience and then get picked up by the big clubs as a finish product. If they go to the big clubs as kids your chances drop of making it and you only get the experience years later. Why are more kids chooses league over union, its 16 teams v 10 teams so better chance if making it in league.
Once Europe really get their academies into gear more players will pick Union but the best will head North if they don’t see a path to make it.
There are 50 professional academies up here that if they only take 4 players each it’s 200 less players for Super Rugby to choose from.
It won’t be long before NRL start losing 16-18 year olds to the 30 French clubs looking for value. Having domestic academies that feed into weaker teams, young players will choose that because they get more exposed and experience than going to say Crusaders or the top North teams and being up against two grizzled internationals for their spot.
If it’s only Super Rugby as it is now, Mack Hansen type players will still leave for playing time, Connacht isn’t Brumbies when it comes to squad strength so he knew he could get more games.
So what will RA and NZRU choose, will they be king makers and make the rest of the world in the image that suits them or will Japan and USA be the king makers when it’s too late. Yes you will need to make adjustments like rest periods for key players and some lopsided results (not that Super Rugby results don’t have this already).
Some teams will be much better and top internationals will want to be in the Champions Cup. Attendances for some teams will be lower but still higher than no team. It’s not perfect but only the early years of the 3 Nations and Super 10/12 was it perfect.
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