Then, though, it hit the big time. In 1995, the heads of the New Zealand, South African and Australian governing bodies formed the SANZAR grouping and struck a $550m deal with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation for a package that inaugurated the Tri Nations international championship and expanded the provincial competition to a dozen teams, playing each other on a home-and-away, round-robin basis. Super 12 had arrived.
Yet in one critical regard it wasn’t really an expansion at all. Murdoch’s millions had bought – indeed, had virtually created – a tournament that pitted the best domestic sides of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa against each other, but they had also delivered a swift kick in the teeth to Samoa, Fiji and Tonga, who had all, at different times, been involved in the competition’s previous incarnations. The Pacific Islands brought no significant viewing figures to the party, so they were no longer on the guest list.
It was the most brutal illustration possible of the new rugby reality in which the money changers take over the temple. There was muttering at the time that island sides might return if the tournament proved to be a success and the format grew again, but that scenario never came to pass. Yes, the tournament was successful, and, yes, the format was expanded, but Fiji, Samoa and Tonga were still left on the sidelines.
Two other teams were added in 2006, to create the Super 14. Another came along in 2011, at which point organisers dropped the numerical designation completely, rebranding the competition as Super Rugby. It was an ugly and vainglorious title, but it did at least allow for further expansion in the future.
Not that there was any compelling sporting justification for doing so. What had begun as a focused, intense and easily understood tournament had grown to an unwieldy, over-complicated series, comprising a conference system and a sudden-death play-off format followed by another play-off. These days, Super Rugby is, quite literally, all over the place. Anyone who actually understands what is happening is clearly the victim of some kind of obsessive disorder.
And it’s about to get worse. As of 2016, Super Rugby will involve 18 teams. Bizarrely, adding three more sides to the mix will have the effect of shortening the tournament as a whole – from 21 weeks to 20 weeks – as it will comprise four conferences rather than the current three. But as any eight-year-old will tell you, four into 18 doesn’t go, so there will be an unequal number of sides across the groups. The New Zealand and Australian conferences will each have five sides taking part, while the two based in South Africa will have four.
Hang on. That means eight South African sides, doesn’t it? Eh, no, actually, because, just to spread that Super Rugby love a little bit wider, each conference will have a side that is not South African at all. One will come from Argentina, the other has yet to be decided.
Argentinian involvement at least has some sort of competitive rationale, as the Pumas are now part of the Rugby Championship, the expanded Tri Nations. It’s not exactly easy to get from Argentina to South Africa, but a semi-sensible fixture list will presumably be worked out to reduce travel burdens.
However, it is the identity of the 18th team which has really set tongues wagging. At the front of the queue, I kid you not, is Singapore. Now I’ve nothing against the place but, when you are 58th in the world rankings, languishing behind such notable non-rugby superpowers as Sweden, Lithuania and the Cayman Islands, your entitlement to be part of one of the planet’s leading competitions is less than obvious. What is clear, though, is that underlying rugby strength is no longer part of the equation.
Money talked when Murdoch put his millions on the table 19 years ago, but it is shrieking its head off now. There is no sporting justification for Singapore – or the Asia Pacific Dragons, as they will apparently be called if they gain admission – being involved; the rationale is purely financial. These days, the only thing that matters is how much dosh you can bring in, and Singapore scores pretty high on that account.
Small wonder that the former Australia coach Eddie Jones says it is “a joke that Singapore is even being considered as the base for the 18th Super Rugby team”. Well it’s nice to know that some people still stand up for principles, the only problem in this instance being that Jones’s main principle is that he would rather see a team from Japan, where he is national coach at the moment, take the 18th place.
Yes, we are firmly in the era of snouts-in-trough rugby. Just as golf’s European Tour seems to spend half its time in the Far East these days, the men behind Super Rugby – essentially, officials of the South African, Australian and New Zealand Unions – care far less about competitive integrity than the size of the cheque on offer. In essence, they have put the game up for sale.
Meanwhile, the Pacific Nations are left looking on enviously. There is a rumour at the moment that the All Blacks will play a Test in Samoa as part of their World Cup preparations; staggeringly, it will be the first time they have ever played a full international on a Pacific Island nation’s soil. This despite the fact they have been only too happy to follow the money elsewhere.
In recent seasons, New Zealand have happily filled their financial boots with Tests in Tokyo and Hong Kong, but have never so much as set foot on Tonga, Samoa or Fiji, countries with a rich rugby heritage, whose players they have happily swept up for their own purposes.
It is still not absolutely certain that the All Blacks will go to Samoa next year, though it is confirmed that they will play the USA in Chicago this November. Apparently, the US authorities have guaranteed their New Zealand counterparts $1m to ‘cover costs’. That, it seems, is all that really matters nowadays.
Snouts-in-trough rugby as Pacific Nations continue to be left in the hinterland