Has twenty-five years of professional rugby worked?

Can rugby survive its professional era?

The month of May 2020 marks twenty-five years since the 1995 Rugby World Cup (RWC) took place in South Africa. It was also to be the last RWC played under the amateur dispensation and the beginning of the professional era.

Also, it marked the end of long tours by the Springboks, All Blacks and Wallabies. It was the start of Super Rugby and the Tri Nations, later replaced by the Rugby Championship. The one tour that has survived the amateur era has been the British and Irish Lions; however, they have seen their match schedule reduced by 50%.

The recent publishing of financial results has shown a loss of close to Aus$10 million for the Australian Rugby Union and a loss of NZ$10 million for the New Zealand Rugby Union. The South African Rugby Union (SARU) has forecasted a possible loss of R1 billion because of the coronavirus impact on top of a rugby industry that was already under severe pressure because of unrealistic salaries and social expenditure. SARU even installed a 14-day transfer window that players contracted in South Africa could negotiate with overseas clubs. This was done to try and reduce remuneration commitments to South African-based players, especially the Springboks. If a company starts selling off its blue chip assets, then they are in dire financial straits.

These results do not paint a healthy financial position for the southern hemisphere rugby unions. This situation has been in the making for years, as the southern hemisphere have been stripped of its players by rich northern hemisphere clubs for and southern hemisphere rugby has been in decline. Super Rugby is against the ropes and will probably not survive the post coronavirus era; the Rugby Championship is fast following the same way.

In South Africa today most of the Springboks are based overseas and this number will continue to grow. It will be interesting to see if the Springboks can retain support within the country if they are all based overseas. How will the patriotic rugby supporter and the government see it?  The only healthy aspect of South African rugby today is the schools’ system; however, this is a pipeline not only for South African rugby but mainly for overseas clubs.

There must be a real danger that in the next ten years southern hemisphere rugby could be bankrupted because of the commercial power of the northern hemisphere. The International Rugby Board (IRB) will have to step in to ensure that rugby remains viable in the three countries who have won eight of the nine RWCs. The key to this is the equitable regulation of players’ movement and remuneration.

It took a late drop goal by Jonny Wilkinson to win the northern hemisphere their solitary RWC. Hopefully, it won’t take an injury-time penalty try for the IRB to save southern hemisphere rugby and ultimately the global game.

The rugby product today is very different to the successful amateur era of years gone by. The real question is, can rugby survive its professional era? The signs are ominous that it can’t and won’t.

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