In Ian Foster’s “ideal world”, the All Blacks head coach would love to have South African franchises competing in Super Rugby.
That’s the verdict he delivered while speaking on The Breakdown after being asked whether New Zealand teams are missing their former South African rivals following their departure to Europe’s United Rugby Championship.
South Africa’s four Super Rugby franchises – the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers – left the competition after the global outbreak of Covid-19 two years ago, playing against each other internally before joining the United Rugby Championship, formerly known as the Pro14, ahead of its current season.
At the time, the South African Rugby Union [SARU] blamed their clubs’ move to Europe on New Zealand Rugby’s [NZR’s] “unilateral” decision to continue on with Super Rugby in a domestic format in the form of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Rugby Australia [RA] followed suit, creating its own Super Rugby AU competition, before the two unions combined to create Super Rugby Trans-Tasman last year, which has now evolved into Super Rugby Pacific this season.
The decision by NZR and RA to forge ahead with Super Rugby on their own stemmed from uncertainty over how the competition would operate in its old format in the midst of border closures and travel restrictions at the height of the pandemic.
However, SARU considered it a slight to not be considered for any future Super Rugby competition, which resulted in the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers replacing the Cheetahs and Southern Kings as the South African representatives in Europe.
“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,” SARU chief executive Jurie Roux said two years ago.
That hasn’t stopped Foster from sounding his appreciation for South Africa’s former Super Rugby outfits, telling The Breakdown that those teams provided Kiwi sides with a “different style” to what they were used to.
Foster added that, without any South African presence in Super Rugby Pacific, NZR must find new ways in which to expose its teams and players against their South African peers.
“I could say something and it’ll probably give a few headlines, but, at the end of the day, it’s been well-documented why South Africa aren’t in it at the moment,” Foster told The Breakdown.
“The travel would have been impossible the last two or three years, and before that, a lot of the South African top players were leaving and playing in Europe, which sort of weakened their teams.
“In an ideal world, I loved having South Africa in the competition. They brought a different style, and now we’ve just got to find other ways to grow our experience of playing them.”
The axing of South Africa from Super Rugby coincided with the unceremonious exit of the Jaguares and Sunwolves from the competition, leaving it without its sole Argentine and Japanese representatives.
Since then, New Zealand’s Super Rugby players have had limited game time against foreign teams and players, having mostly played against each other in Super Rugby Aotearoa in 2020 and 2021.
Last year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman provided the New Zealand sides – the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Crusaders and Highlanders – with the chance to play teams from Australia – the Brumbies, Reds, Waratahs, Force and Rebels.
All 10 of those teams have met each other – as well as Super Rugby Pacific newcomers Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua – again this year.
However, while expanding on the purpose of Super Rugby Pacific, Foster said that New Zealand’s leading teams and players need to build experience in facing foreign opposition in a top-level club competition.
“Your players need to play, and we want a high-quality, international-type competition where we can test ourselves against players from within and also in other countries,” he told The Breakdown.
“It’s changed around a lot, Super Rugby, over many, many years. When rugby went professional and it [Super Rugby] started, everyone thought it’d be the downfall of New Zealand rugby because we wouldn’t be able to deal in the professional era.
“But we’ve shown that we’ve got some great franchises there at the moment, all doing a lot of work in terms of the development, linking with the provincial unions, and the system.
“Whilst we critique it hard, we talk about its weaknesses, it’s also got a massive degree of strength to it, and it has helped support an All Black team that has consistently been able to perform at the top echelon.
“We just want to keep having a tough, even competition and, where possible, have as many games against other countries’ players as well.”
Ongoing whispers about a potential merger competition between Super Rugby Pacific and Japan’s League One, as well persistent rumours of a Club World Championship, may be the answers to Foster’s calls for more cross-border matches at club level.
Neither one of those concepts have come to fruition, though, meaning Foster and NZR’s top brass of players will have to make do with Super Rugby Pacific for the foreseeable future.
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