With the axe hanging over the Melbourne Rebels and the Western Force, the ARU might be advised to follow South Africa’s example and relocate a Super Rugby team rather than cull it – and the obvious place is Japan.
South Africa have confirmed the Cheetahs and the Kings will not play in the contracted 15-team Super Rugby competition next year, but those two teams won’t disappear and are instead likely to move to the Pro 12 competition in Europe, which includes teams from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.
It makes sense for international sporting competitions to be based on longitude rather than latitude because teams are roughly in the same time zone, which has tremendous benefits, particularly for broadcasting. South Africa and Europe occupy close time zones, and so do Australia and Japan: Melbourne is just one hour ahead of Tokyo, which is an hour ahead of Perth.
In Japan, the Top League – a professional competition – includes many Australian coaches and players and is of a reasonably high standard. Teams such as Panasonic Wild Knights and Suntory Sungoliath are owned by major Japanese corporations, and this is where the real money lies in Japanese rugby.
If the Force or the Rebels could form a commercial partnership with a Japanese company which did not already own a Top League team, it would be a financially viable operation at little or no cost to the ARU.
You could ask the question why an Australian team would be invited to play in the Top League? Well, the Japanese Sunwolves compete in Super Rugby and if an Australian Super Rugby team is culled, they will most likely be placed in the Australian conference. On this basis alone it would be impolite for the Japanese to reject any Australian overtures, but there are potential mutual benefits.
For a start, it would be far better for the ARU if the Rebels or the Force played in Japan than to lose a franchise altogether. Australian Super franchises are already exploring commercial opportunities in Japan. The NSW Waratahs, for example, are sponsored by Japanese air conditioner manufacturer Daikin.
An Australian team playing in the Top League would strengthen the commercial relationship with Japanese rugby and create new sponsorship and broadcast opportunities for both countries, particularly heading into the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
If an Australian team is culled, their Wallabies will be absorbed by the other four Super Rugby teams, but what about the rest of the players? They will be unemployed. To be sure, the best of those leftover players will probably pick up contracts in Europe or even Japan. Others could seek opportunities in Sydney, Brisbane or Canberra club rugby to remain noticed or even the ITM Cup in New Zealand.
But what about junior players in Melbourne and Perth? If the Rebels or the Force no longer existed, what would the kids aspire to? Who would be their local heroes and role models? If the threatened pair played in the Top League, there would still be a professional pathway for elite juniors in Western Australia and Victoria.
There is the possibility that an Australian Top League franchise could become a feeder team for the Super Rugby sides, although that would probably require some ARU involvement in the operation.
It’s no secret that neither Melbourne nor Perth are rugby towns, but there is enormous potential to grow the game in those two large markets. If either are terminated, there is a real danger rugby will never recover in those locations and that would be one of the greatest lost opportunities in the game’s history in this country.
It is ironic that the Rebels and the Force play their final games of the 2017 Super Rugby season against the Jaguares and Waratahs respectively on this Bastille Day weekend. If one of them is guillotined, there will be no coming back. But a chance for life after Super Rugby exists in Japan and that opportunity should at least be explored before the blade falls.
Disappointing 2nd half but proud of the boys for once again making the finals against all odds. Unfortunately Australian rugby is in the doldrums and despite our best effort we are 5 classes below the Kiwi sides