South Africa Bids Farewell to Super Rugby: What is SARU’s future?

Tara O’Donnell, Scarlet Staff

In late September, the South African Rugby Union (SARU) pulled its teams out of Super Rugby. This shocking announcement followed New Zealand’s decision to host Super Rugby Aotearoa, a domestic competition exclusively between the Australian and Kiwi teams. This decision was surprising since it effectively excluded South Africa. The four SARU teams, the Bulls, Lions, Sharks, and Stormers, will instead compete in the European PRO14 League. Despite this, the South African national team, the SpringBoks, will continue to compete in the Rugby Championship. This news confirms that the SARU has not completely withdrawn from the SANZAAR partnership.

New Zealand’s exclusion of South Africa from their 2021 plans sparked a great deal of controversy, particularly after the revelation that the SARU was not privy to the decision before its public disclosure. “Our members are excited about the prospect of closer alignment with PRO Rugby Championship and seeking a Northern Hemisphere future, but we would not have been taking this decision but for actions elsewhere,” chief executive Jurie Roux explained. Earlier this year, rumors began circulating that Roux would leave to lead World Rugby at its headquarters in Ireland, but he quickly shut those rumors down. In a publicized statement he commented that he remains “100 percent committed to SA (South African) Rugby.”

Speculation over a South African exit from Super Rugby is nothing new. Two South African teams, the Toyota Cheetahs and Southern Kings, already made their transfers in 2017. Although they were previously dropped from the league earlier this year, their PRO14 involvement served as a sort of test run for SA Rugby. The move to the PRO14 League was “no surprise” to New Zealand Rugby’s chief executive. The SARU wanted to improve their financial status and international image, especially following a six-month suspension of their 2020 season due to COVID-19.

The northern hemisphere makes up over 60% of rugby’s commercial value internationally, as reported by the Daily Maverick. SA Rugby will undoubtedly benefit from this following their transition. One of the biggest expense cuts will come from the teams’ travel. Team members will no longer deal with constant jetlag, as the time difference between Europe and South Africa is only an hour. Unfortunately for existing PRO14 teams, they will now have to go on the long plane rides that the South African teams previously had to endure.

Both the upcoming South African and current PRO14 teams have voiced excitement over the transfer. A survey of SARU team members by MyPlayers revealed that over 80% were in favor of moving to the PRO Rugby circuit. According to RTÉ, the addition of the four South African teams to the program will elevate the reputation of the league and increase their funding, thanks to their lucrative sponsorships and devoted fanbases.

However, not everyone is pleased by South Africa’s departure from Super Rugby.

John Dobson, the Stormers coach, remarked in July that he would be “sad to see it go.” Dobson raised concerns regarding the switch, particularly stressing the quality of play if the teams no longer face New Zealand. Dobson explained that the Kiwi teams not only influence the players’ intensity but the coaches’ as well. Severing ties with NZ Rugby could have a lasting impact on the SARU’s performance.

The PRO14 league will officially expand to become PRO16 in the 2021 season. Although their departure from Super Rugby marks the end of an era, the transition to PRO Rugby represents exciting growth and a possible revival for the South African Rugby Union.