Stuart Barnes: South Africa joining Six Nations would permanently shake rugby world order

The loss of South Africa as a regular tournament partner for the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship would be catastrophic for the global game in general, writes STUART BARNES.

The Wallabies would be financially hurt if the Sprinboks joined the Six Nations. Picture: Matt Roberts/Getty Images
The Wallabies would be financially hurt if the Sprinboks joined the Six Nations. Picture: Matt Roberts/Getty Images

Money, money, money. If South Africa become part of what is at present the Six Nations it will be great news for the capital investment sloshing around in the higher echelons of rugby union and it will be great news for the television companies who will pay a fortune and make even more.

Rugby fans follow the international game. The Gallagher Premiership is about to offer a streaming service for all matches not shown live. It is a welcome service, but a tiny trickle in comparison with this potential behemoth of a tournament.

Forget streams, think Amazon.

We are being told about who will be the winners should South Africa be added to the equation. Let’s consider the losers for a second. The most obvious is Italy. Frankly, this is least worrying. Having lost their past 34 games it is hard to build a case in their defence. The odd committee men and women will miss their jolly to Rome but, alas, what else have the Italians given us?

A system whereby the bottom team in the Six Nations face the top team in a second-tier European tournament for the right to play in the championship makes the demise of Italy acceptable. What isn’t acceptable is the damage this financially fabulous tournament would do to those nations on the outside. In particular New Zealand and Australia, but also the Pacific Islands and Argentina.

A move to the Six Nations for the Springboks would be damaging for the All Blacks, Wallabies, Pacific Islands and Argentina. Picture: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images
A move to the Six Nations for the Springboks would be damaging for the All Blacks, Wallabies, Pacific Islands and Argentina. Picture: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images

South African franchised sides have already infiltrated what was once a Celtic League with a generous leg-up for Italian rugby. To become part of the European rugby jamboree would be a big boost in their battle to keep their developing players within the South African game. But the cultural heart of Test-match rugby is the rivalry between the game’s two superpowers, the Springboks and the All Blacks.

For South Africa to turn towards Europe is to turn away from the cherished traditions of the sport. Corporations don’t care a damn for such nostalgia, but I do. This is not a panacea to improve the sport as a global game — it is a money-making concept that will leave chaos in its wake.

The financial clout of the French league is already a significant lure, along with Japanese club rugby, for the Sanzaar (South African, New Zealand, Australian and Argentina) players. Without the power of the South African game to help to maintain some financial stability, the balance between Europe and the powerhouses of rugby will irreversibly tilt in the direction of the old world. The loss of South Africa as a regular tournament partner for the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship would be catastrophic for the global game in general.

You don’t care about the wider implications? OK, well what about the much beloved Six Nations? It is a tournament that thrives on patriotism, occasionally to the point of nationalism. It is not the standard of rugby that has made this the one tournament that exists in the wider consciousness of the sports fan.

There is more profit to be made from the Six Nations for a broadcaster than the Premiership and Europe combined. International rugby was always the long game for corporate interests from day one of any commercial agreement between rugby union and its commercial partners.

South Africa — another continent, another culture — dissipates the magic the moment they take off from Johannesburg for Europe. It’s not our little mud fight in the mire of Murrayfield any more, it’s a global extravaganza.

The minimal difference in time between South Africa and Europe assists in the broadcasting of the event but nothing can close the space between the southern tip of Africa and the northwest of Europe.

There is no send of belonging with South Africa in European rugby. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
There is no send of belonging with South Africa in European rugby. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

There is no sense of belonging. No intimacy. When South Africa play in Europe it is a big fixture for the European team but it lacks the rivalry that even television cannot manufacture. South Africa are not rivals. They are another rugby nation, a great rugby nation, but one that has a history entwined with others, above all New Zealand. The Six Nations would be diminished by the vast ocean between South Africa and their European partners in profit.

Less is more. The best domestic rugby tournament is France’s Top 14. It is lavishly (in rugby terms) supported by French broadcasters. The Premiership lacks the history that gives French club rugby its unique flavour. But like France, the rivalries are real. Bristol Bears really don’t like Bath; the same can be said for Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints. The rivalry adds edge.

So too with the Six Nations. In nine days’ time Wales face England. The Springboks may be the world champions but it is England, never mind the kudos of South Africa, that Welsh fans want to beat. Rivalries that exist beyond rugby fuel the adrenaline that keeps the competition so close to the hearts of general sports fans.

Every time you turn on your television to see the Springboks against your country, they lose a little bit more of their mystique. In the end the international game will suffer, as Test cricket has. Too much familiarity breeds a boredom that will be allayed by the next great gimmick.

Television and corporate interests have gained control of the sport’s future. South Africa — if they do join the Six Nations — will be rugby union’s Trojan horse, an opportunity to remake the international future of rugby union … oh, and make a lot of money in the process.

– The Times