The Super XV will become the Super XVIII – or perhaps the less clunky Super 18 – in 2016 after Japan and Argentina were granted franchise licenses on Thursday, joining a sixth South African side as expansion teams in two years’ time.
“It gives me great pleasure to welcome the JRFU and UAR who will join the Kings from South Africa as Super Rugby prepares to expand into a bold and exciting new era,” SANZAR chief Greg Peters said in a statement.
“As top 10 ranked rugby nations with established high performance level leagues and over 100,000 players each, there is no doubt as to Japan and Argentina’s rugby readiness and passion for the sport.”
Granted, Argentina and Japan are indeed top 10 ranked nations – in ninth and 10th respectively, ahead of troubled Pacific outfits Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, and Six Nations whipping boys Italy, before you get to the real minnows of world rugby from No.15 (Georgia, Canada, USA et al).
The reality of these new franchises offering genuine competition to the established teams is questionable. They will probably jag a few wins at home as travel takes its toll, while Argentina is a notoriously hostile playing environment; but winning away will be incredibly difficult given every game on the road will be overseas.
Depth and quality of players is another concern. Japan has a long history of snaring overseas stars to their club competition – Nick Cummins, Adam Thomson, Ben May, Andy Ellis, Jaque Fourie and Andries Bekker are just a few of those saddling up for the 2014-15 season, while former NRL stars Craig Wing, Fraser Anderson, Andrew Everingham and Omar Slaimankhel are also there. But assembling a competent Super Rugby squad will be more complicated, and the Argentina franchise will battle to attract imports.
Both sides are likely to be box-office flops overseas, with fans staying away in droves if they are languishing near the bottom of the ladder. On the other hand, they will enjoy rabid support at home, while it is a perfect precursor to the Japan-hosted 2019 World Cup.
There are less positives to be drawn from bringing another South African team – the Port Elizabeth-based Southern Kings, who played in the 2013 comp – into the fold, however.
The talent pool in the Republic will be further diluted. Meanwhile, the ITM Cup continues to show there is too much talent in New Zealand than can be contained in five Super Rugby outfits; a city with a bigger population base clearly weighs into the criteria far more than breadth of rugby talent.
The make-up of the competition will obviously have to change from the current country conference system, which has worked very well in recent seasons. Nevertheless, it represents an exciting and intriguing new era as rugby continues to extend its global reach.