Rightio readers, time to breathe a bit easier after what has been a turbulent few weeks for the Sea of Blue.
A couple of weeks ago, back on April 28 to be precise, your columnist became the lone voice to declare the Force would still be playing Super Rugby next season. Now I’m prepared to go even further and predict the Force will still be around for another three seasons. And I’ll also explain what the key will be for the Force to stick around after that.
On Friday, this column lifted the lid on the back room discussions the ARU was holding with the Rebels private owner Andrew Cox to buy back the Melbourne team’s Super Rugby franchise. Today, The Australian newspaper’s rugby writer Wayne Smith has told his national audience it is “highly possible” those back room discussions between the ARU and Cox could see the Rebels, and not the Force, become the Australian team to be axed from Super Rugby next season.
As we know, Cox is a businessman. So his discussions with the ARU will only involve two agenda items – dollars and cents. The deal for Cox to hand back the keys will be complicated by unwinding venue agreements and the like, but it can be presumed there is a willingness on both sides to get the deal done and thus resolve the Australian Super Rugby impasse. The fact the ARU has not come out publically to deny reports of its discussions with Cox – or provide any sort of reassurance to Rebels fans – speaks volumes.
Writing out a cheque to Cox will be a hit to the ARU’s balance sheet. However, if and when the deal with Cox is consummated, expect the ARU to highlight that the projected savings to be made over the remaining three years (2018-2020) of the current Super Rugby broadcasting deal will far outweigh the one-off cost of buying back the Rebels franchise. The message from the ARU is likely to be along these lines: Think savings, think more funding for grass roots rugby in Australia.
So what will that all mean for the Force? Doing the deal with Cox might solve Australia’s obligations to SANZAAR to reduce the number of Australian Super Rugby teams from five to four, but the next challenge will be for South Africa to toe the line and trim two teams. As we previously stated in this column, those two South African teams haven’t been identified yet, which is why the fireworks haven’t started yet in the Republic. When and if that can be achieved, SANZAAR will have its desired 15-team structure in place for the remainder of the 2020 broadcasting term.
That scenario would represent a reprieve for the Force after a near-death experience. Thereafter, the sustainability challenge will be for the Force to wash its face financially. That will involve a variety of stakeholders including the Force hierarchy, the WA Government (as major sponsor via the Road Safety Commission) and of course the Sea of Blue fans. The support being shown by the clubs for the Own The Force campaign is a great foundation to build on. However, looking forward, the biggest influence on the Force’s long-term sustainability will be whether the ARU bites the bullet and adopts the highly-successful NZ equalisation formula under which all the Kiwi Super Rugby franchises get the same level of financial support. In other words, no more extra top-ups for the Wallaby-laden Waratahs, Brumbies and Reds.
But let’s cross the first bridge before we go down that path….