Mark Keohane, writing for IOL Sport
It may not quite be a year from now, but sooner rather than later, history will reflect professional rugby’s revolution only came about because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
And the revolution was necessary for the sport’s survival.
Rugby, in comparison to other sports, is a professional pup. The game may have gone professional in 1996, but weighted against every other established global professional sporting code, rugby as a paid profession is only in its infancy.
It did need something radical and dramatic to move things along in rugby and to finally expose the workings of those with a mentality engrained in the amateur era.
Those many people, and they aren’t confined to one country or one country in particular, now know that there isn’t a bottomless pit of money in rugby. Elected officials can’t run professional sporting businesses and not every player who has aspirations of making the game his or her profession is going to make it.
South Africa is an example of a limited professional rugby base.
Realistically, there are 100 players in this country who could call themselves professional rugby players. The make up of seven Currie Cup squads makes for a number in excess of 200. This is some way off the 600-plus players who were listed as professionals just a few years ago.
No broadcasting deal and no sponsorship could sustain a professional sport, in which provincial and regional elected officials, applied amateur principles.
Change had to come and it had to come quickly, but it just wasn’t forthcoming.
Bang, then came Covid-19 and all rugby, professional and amateur, shut down in South Africa earlier this year at the end of March.
There was nowhere to hide and nowhere to run.
Rugby’s leadership, in every country, had to look into the soul of the game and look into their own respective souls. It didn’t make for pretty viewing and it was a case of ‘charity begins at home’ and each one for him or herself.
Covid-19 allowed the New Zealand Rugby Union to flex its muscles, however overstated the size of these muscles in the Sanzaar alliance. With New Zealand bullish about not needing South Africa when it came to Super Rugby, it finally allowed South African rugby to respond in kind.
And respond they did because South African rugby’s regional move to the north in 2021 will be a godsend to the financial well-being on the game in this country.
Everything that is happening in rugby currently is abnormal and there is no way of predicting the landscape while there is still so much uncertainty around Covid-19 vaccines, player health and spectator admissions to venues.
It is hoped that by March, 2021, some form of sanity will have returned to the sporting world and matches will be played in front of live audiences.
The British and Irish Lions eight match tour to South Africa, from 3rd July to 7th August, will be the iconic moment when players again appreciate that without fans there is no occasion and fans will also be humbled in simply being able to attend a professional game of rugby.
Isolation, caused by Covid, has intensified the appetite among fans to watch rugby in this country. The response to the Lions tour ticket ballot confirmed this, with more than 300 000 ticket requests for the eight matches.
The Lions visit is fortuitous for the South African Rugby Union because it will be the biggest sporting event in South Africa since FIFA’S 2010 Soccer World Cup. Financially, the South African Rugby Union will benefit like no other international union or federation in this current climate.
The absence of rugby has demanded every type of assessment and reassessment and when order is restored next year, the professional game as it has been known for the past 25 years, would have changed forever.
In the South African context, having no international rugby in 2020 is a blessing in disguise.
The enforced domestic Super Rugby Unlocked has been a huge success in showcasing the best of South Africa’s home talent and the situation has also allowed for the Currie Cup, at least for one season, to be the premier tournament in South African rugby.
The new Currie Cup sponsor (Carling Black Label) got the bonus of having every South African-based Springbok available to their respective provinces. The next two months, when the Currie Cup takes centre stage, will also be one mass Springbok trial, in preparation for the Lions visit.
South African rugby would not have been in this position of change, had it not been for Covid.
Legalities would have tied up the Super Rugby franchises to the international competition for the next decade. Now it is every one for themselves and South Africa will be the biggest beneficiary.
Super Rugby, in its launch year in 1996, was a novelty and revolutionary in world rugby. Super Rugby, in 2019, was on the ropes but it needed Covid-19 to land the knockout blow.
The New Zealand Herald’s Gregor Paul earlier this week beautifully summed up Super Rugby.
‘After 25 years of taking Super Rugby from the best provincial competition in the world to an almost bankrupt, sorry mish-mash of barely functioning teams from around the world who played in mostly empty stadia at random times, executives in this part of the world are being given a second chance to get things right. The arrival of Covid has been the game’s ultimate blessing.’
Paul was writing about the New Zealand rugby scene, but his words are applicable to South African rugby.
The game’s leadership in this country has been given a second chance and the early indications are they won’t be getting it wrong this time.
South African rugby’s future, as crazy as it may sound right now, could not be brighter.