At the ripe old age of 26, Super Rugby as we know it may well be heading for its final weekend of action.
A sight that has become all too familiar over the years will see the Auckland Blues face off against the Crusaders from Christchurch in yet another all-kiwi affair.
Having largely been dominated by New Zealand since the very first season which was won by the Blues as they overcame the Natal Sharks from South Africa in 1996. Super Rugby has seen a continued decrease in interest over the years.
The tournament itself appeared to reach a breaking point when the South African franchises walked out two years ago.
Whilst there was a myriad of factors leading to the SA teams leaving, the process was accelerated due to the covid-19 pandemic.
Speaking of those factors, the primary reasons for their removal was the significant amounts of travel which led to often uncompetitive fixtures and an overall hit on player welfare.
For South Africa, playing in Europe made too much sense to ignore. Firstly, the time difference between the two continents is insignificant in particular when compared with that of Australia and New Zealand.
Secondly there was the financial incentives of being involved with a league in the United Rugby Championship that should yield a significant improvement of the South African franchises over the coming years. Currently the South African sides operate on a R60m per year budget (roughly £3.8m), which is significantly below even the poorest European region.
Given the success of the Stormers, Bulls and Sharks this season investments in their organisations should continue to come in.
It certainly took the SA franchises a moment to settle into the competition having taken some heavy losses early on in the season. But fast forward to this weekend where the Bulls and Stormers are contesting the final and it is clear to see the switch has been successful.
Throw into the mix that the three listed teams will compete in next seasons Heineken Champions Cup whilst the Cheetahs and Lions will be on show in the Challenge Cup and the future is certainly bright for SA provincial rugby.
With their African counterparts no longer involved with Super Rugby, Australian Rugby now looks set to leave their antipodean neighbours to play by themselves.
Interestingly led by Zimbabwean born and Welsh International Andy Marinos who is all too familiar with South African Rugby having worked for the union for over a decade. Rugby Australia could be looking towards their Rugby Championship counterparts as an example of what could be achieved.
By all accounts it would appear that Rugby Australia (RA) are still bitter towards the New Zealand Rugby Union for casting aside both the South Africans and Argentineans following the onset of covid-19.
Take into account that the New Zealanders initially wanted only two Australian sides in the Super Rugby Pacific tournament, and you can understand the frustration.
Having now seen a significant turnaround in performance by the Australian sides this season, with the Brumbies coming agonisingly close to knocking over the Blues in Auckland it would appear that New Zealand have changed their tune.
Another significant factor in the potential divorce would be the financial set-up. With South Africa’s removal from the tournament, the significant television money that was equally distributed by South African tv sports providers Supersport also left.
What remains is a wholly disproportionate financial split which sees the NZRU receive $91m per season from Sky Sports whilst Australian Rugby receives $29m.
The solution Australian Rugby appear to be throwing out there is a domestic competition which would run in a similar format to the successful AFL and NRL leagues.
Having seen a significant turnout of 40,000 fans to watch the 2021 Super Rugby Australia final between the Reds and Brumbies, it is reported that many AR board members feel the domestic tournament could continue to gather this level of interest.
In their current guise Australian Rugby only has five professional Rugby Union franchises which would make it tough to run a professional league.
Should the split away from New Zealand happen then it is reported that AR would add two new teams into the mix with an extra side in both New South Wales and Queensland being the option.
From a financial perspective the incentives appear to be there, having seen the NZRU sign an £103m private equity deal with US firm Silver Lake whilst the Six Nations recently signed a whopping £367m deal with CVC. Looking back towards South Africa, it would appear as though they are closing in on a deal with CVC which would see a significant influx of finances into their domestic system.
All-in-all it would appear as though Australian Rugby’s primary decision boils down to finances. Do they sign with CVC like South Africa set to do or do they sign with Silverlake and remain in lockstep with the NZRU.
Having been awarded both the Men’s and Women’s World Cup as well as a Lions Series all coming within the next decade, the decisions that Rugby Australia make in the coming weeks will be crucial to their success in what is an important decade.