Opinion: SA Rugby is doing well


South African rugby is actually doing very well – on and off the field. And this is not the case everywhere in the world.

In the piece, I look, on the basis of reports and statistics, at the main rugby countries, with the exception of the United Rugby Championship, where the participating countries are doing relatively well.

England – clubs are struggling financially

While some of England’s leading Premier League clubs are fighting bankruptcy and in a few cases have to pay their players from the clubs’ shareholders’ funds, it seems that some of their clubs are heading for bankruptcy.

And this while three of their clubs went with it last year.

France – World Cup takes its toll

In France, the clubs have been under financial pressure for years, mainly because of the huge salaries to players. However, in the last year or three, club owners and managements have been quite cautious, but the recent World Cup has taken a financial toll on all levels of French rugby.

And there is also, after France’s disappointing World Cup performance, uncertainty about their players, their coaching and also instability with officials (where the latter is no surprise).

South Africa’s contribution overseas

In the meantime, dozens of South African players play in England and France, and of course in practically every team in the PRC series. Add to that the South African captains and leaders such as Stephan Lewies of Harlequins, Eli Snyman of Benetton, and also add that Johann van Graan is the head coach of Bath. In Scotland, Franco Smith holds the reins as coach at Glasgow. Jacques Nienaber is assistant coach at Leinster, Handré Pollard the joint highest paid rugby player in the world.

And in the growing Japanese market there are dozens of our top players themselves, including World Cup heroes.

SA power in fast growing PRC range

In addition, there is the stability and outstanding rugby of the South African teams in the United Rugby Championship (URC).

The increase in attendance figures across the whole competition; more people watching the PRC matches on TV; and greater ‘uncertainty’ about results with the fierce rivalry of the 14 teams undoubtedly makes it one of the toughest competitions in the rugby world.

PRC one of the world’s toughest

To dwell on the last-mentioned statement for a moment: At the half-way mark of the 2023/24 season’s league matches, there was a point difference of seven or fewer points in 51% of the matches. Power against power…

Compare this to the previous two seasons, when only 34% of the games were won/lost by such a narrow margin.

In addition, the PRC’s viewing figures have risen, and in round 8 of the current series, when most of the big derbies were played, there were almost 3 million TV viewers – better than any of the other top series worldwide.

This includes a new HRC record – 685,243 TV viewers for the match between the Stormers and the Bulls at DHL Stadium.

In fact, the expectation is that the current series, which is almost at its playoffs, will show a growth of more than 10 percent in TV viewers and that this growth will also be almost matched by the number of spectators at the 2023/24 matches.

And financially, SA Rugby is doing well. Big gains are coming when the expenses of overseas flights are no longer our body’s obligation.

New Zealand’s problems

New Zealand rugby is currently busy with infighting between the players and the provinces. The new Superseries, in which the island teams Drua from Fiji and Moana Pasifika (Samoa) participate together with teams from New Zealand and Australia, is a mixed bag.

And financially, it’s not going too far with New Zealand rugby either due to controversial expenses and investments.

Super series hitches

On the field, the play-offs are a big and controversial point of discussion.

The Crusaders, who won only two of their 12 games this year, can, for example, still reach the quarter-finals with two more games to go.

The press and rugby supporters feel that the four leading teams; the Blues, Hurricanes, Brumbies and Chiefs have merit in the play-offs and should also be the only ones who deserve to get through, partly because they are the only ones who have won more games than lost.

Now there are still two weekends of rugby left where the other teams get an undeserved chance to reach the quarter-finals. Even the Crusaders, in tenth place with just two out of 12 wins, are still in the race!

It is clear that Sanzaar will have to think carefully about the series’ future. The stadiums were acceptably full during the season where power played against power, but this year there were simply too many cases of runaway victories. Quality was not always necessary to win.

Sanzaar will have to reflect on a competition where quality is preferred over quantity.

Players and provinces at odds

Meanwhile, new coach Scott Robertson’s long-cherished dream of coaching the All Blacks seems to include bits of a nightmare. There are apparently snags between the players and the provinces – and at a high level, with men like former captain Richie McCaw and recent World Cup captain Sam Cane fighting in the players’ corner.

The players’ revolt has been going on since 2023. They are unhappy with the current management and insist on a number of major changes, including the appointment of independent directors.

This follows the players’ dismay over the agreement made with the US investment company Silver Lakes. (More on Silver Lakes later in the Opinion piece)

However, the proposals from the provinces do not address these problems, and the players’ association threatens that they will break away from NZR if the provinces go ahead with their plan on 30 May.

The players’ association will apparently then establish a new body, the Professional Rugby Tribunal, which will deal with all professional matters, including media and player contracts. However, the NZR will remain in control with amateur and community rugby, the thinking is believed to be.

The main reason is a tug of war over control. The unions want to retain their say over board appointments, while the players want an independent board representing all appointments, including the players and the NZR’s commercial arm.

NZR’s finances
On the financial front, New Zealand has trodden quite a bit of clay with their share deals with the investment company Silver Lake. They raised an initial NZ$200 million (about R2.2 billion) from the investment venture early this year with a further NZ$62.5 million (R680 million).

Among other things, the utilization and application that was determined upon the initial acquisition of the funds was believed to be much higher than what the NZR (and Silver Lakes) had foreseen.

Australia is pulling hard

Australian rugby is pulling hard. They recently announced a deficit of A$9.2 million (approximately R112 million) for 2023 and must also support the struggling Melbourne Rebels full-time.

(About A$2.6 million, or R31.6 million, of the shortfall was unsanctioned overspending from Eddie Jones’ World Cup side that failed miserably.)

But: Australia has the British and Irish Lions touring there next year, and is hosting two Rugby World Cups in 2027 (men) and 2029 (women). It should also be a good windfall – provided the Aussies’ rugby doesn’t completely collapse financially before then…

Japan: More and younger players want to play there longer

And just like that, Japan has moved into fourth place in terms of the most rugby players in the world. And the game is still growing in a country that has been playing organized rugby for more than a century.

With 125,000 rugby players and more than 3,600 rugby clubs, this relative newcomer to international rugby is growing in terms of fans, spectators and players.

In fact, they have just approved three new clubs in their third league for next season, with 26 teams competing in the three leagues.

But even more noteworthy is the fact that the big corporations in Japan still show great interest in the sport and support it well, that some of the world’s leading rugby players are increasingly starting to play in Japan, ‘that it is happening at a younger age’ and that these players also playing longer in Japan.