Super Rugby is set for major and permanent change, sparked by the Covid-19 shutdown, according to stakeholders within Sanzaar, the grouping of Southern Hemisphere rugby unions.
The tournament, which involves club teams from Argentina, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa, has been halted due to the pandemic and looks unlikely to resume this year given the long-distance travel and other logistical challenges involved.
Sanzaar unions including New Zealand Rugby, Rugby Australian and South Africa Rugby, are considering launching domestic club tournaments to resume play as soon as possible after Covid-19 restrictions lift. Rugby insiders say these new competitions could be the death knell for Super Rugby, which has always been a costly and logistically challenging tournament to run and has been declining in popularity with fans. This was already due to be the final year in the competition for its sole Japanese team, the Sunwolves.
On Sunday, The Australian newspaper ran an interview with Rugby Australia chairman Paul McLean, in which he said Australia and New Zealand were planning a joint competition for next year, and it could become a permanent fixture. He was speaking after talks with Brent Impey, the chairman of New Zealand Rugby.
McLean said: “I can’t see and they can’t see South Africa and Argentina being involved anywhere in the short term along the way…
“I think they know that the competition next year may be the competition they sell to their broadcasters (long-term). Everyone is in the same boat and their broadcasters are under the same pressure as ours, I suspect — like everyone around the world.”
NZR chief executive Mark Robinson on Monday said his organisation was “reviewing” the involvement of its five teams in Super Rugby, although added it remained committed to Sanzaar and its broadcast partners “for the next five years”.
“The review is about ensuring our Super Rugby remains relevant, sustainable and our fans are entertained and engaged,” he said, Channel News Asia reported.
The review is to be titled ‘Aratipu’, the indigenous Maori word for ‘growth’, and will be conducted by representatives of the five New Zealand clubs and other stakeholders.
Two major media rights deals for Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship – the annual Sanzaar national team competition – have been agreed so far for the next cycle, running 2021-25. The rights are sold in the Sanzaar territories by the respective rugby unions in deals that include other rights held by those unions, including domestic competitions and home internationals played outside Sanzaar competitions. NZR agreed a record-breaking deal with Sky New Zealand last year, and SA Rugby is understood to have been close to a deal with long-term partner SuperSport, the pay-television broadcaster. These deals would have to be reworked if there were major changes to Super Rugby or the Rugby Championship.
Rugby Australia has struggled to agree a domestic deal for the new cycle. after failing to get long-term partner Fox Sports to agree to more free-to-air matches. RA was planning to restart talks with broadcasters in the second quarter this year. It is not thought that a deal was agreed yet in Argentina, which represents only a small proportion of the global value of the Sanzaar media rights. Sports broadcaster ESPN is the current rights-holder in a deal that covers the Americas. Media rights sales in the rest of the world had not yet begun, and were awaiting the completion of the RA deal.
The Australia and New Zealand unions are looking at restarting their own competitions, and then, when travel restrictions are relaxed between the two countries, joining up their competitions in some format.
Dates are not yet confirmed for any rugby restart in Australia, although the Queensland Rugby Union has announced a target date of June 1 for a resumption of training and an expectation that competition will resume nationally on July 1.