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Gordon D’Arcy: If South Africa moves up north, it could all go south

Once the South Africans move onto Pro14 turf, the game will never be the same again

Many of rugby's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone and consider the unintended consequences of South Africa moving to the northern hemisphere.

Presently, I am forced to sit quietly in our walk-in closet-turned-office as an unintended consequence of lockdown with children (part II).

At least the Champions Cup doesn't have "European" in the title. And sure, the Six Nations can be changed to "Seven Nations" in a cinch. Somebody needs to reach out to Jack White from The White Stripes, but you can already hear the theme tune.

The quiet man also needs to weigh up the positives and negatives before we light this fuse. If the overwhelming motivation is money, prepare to witness the bastardisation of a sport I have loved since discarding my hurley for egg-shaped leather at age 12 (shameless plug for the second book in the Gordon’s Game series).


Know this: once the South Africans move onto Pro14 turf, the game will never be the same again.

Positives are easy to identify. Leinster will have four ferocious rivals to prepare them for the next Champions Cup quarter-final against a Saracens, a Toulon, a Donnacha Ryan-inspired Racing 92 or even the Blue Bulls at altitude.

It will force Ulster, Munster and Connacht to ratchet up standards to a level they presently cannot attain or they can forget about Champions Cup rugby until they match Springbok with Springbok (Munster are ahead of the game in this regard).

I presume the African franchises will be allowed to qualify for European tournaments via the latest iteration of the old Celtic League. Otherwise, what is the point in bringing them north? I'd make the same argument about the Six Nations as I struggle to see how a club and country split over two hemispheres and two separate seasons would work.

Someone is bound to say “this will make the Challenge Cup more competitive”, and while that is probably true, can anybody tell me the results of last weekend’s semi-finals? (Answer: Bristol and Toulon square off in the battle of the chequebooks on October 16th).

Second-tier competitions

Nobody cares about second-tier competitions. In 2013 I know we didn't give a damn until we lifted the trophy. It's a medal but that season gets chalked down as a failure to win three Heineken Cups on the bounce.

When the South Africans properly arrive, Irish rugby will be doing very well to get three provinces into the Champions Cup year in, year out. And if the Welsh or Scots get their act together we could conceivably have none.

It won't go that far – Leinster and one other should always find a way into an expanded Euro-African club competition – but how do you think Edinburgh, Glasgow, Scarlets, Cardiff and Ospreys will cope with present and future waves of giant Springboks?

Unintended consequences lean towards Not Very Well. Instead of the intended consequences of a rising tide lifting all boats, many teams will join the Southern Kings at the bottom of the ocean.

The reality of the world we live in makes the South African move north inevitable but – to my mind – it is happening at too rapid a pace.

We are about to let Bulls into the henhouse. Or is it Sharks in a china shop? The same result is guaranteed.

Rassie Erasmus is thinking bigger than your average director of rugby. The Sharks, Bulls, Stormers and Lions are fully formed Super Rugby outfits that funnel talent directly into the Springboks squad. If Erasmus is eyeing up a continued period of (profitable) world domination, then Europe is the only move.

In reality, it is not really Europe. The "club" landscape is utterly dominated by Ireland, England and France, with also-rans slightly masking it for what it really is. At least two South African franchises will come close to instantly winning a remodelled Pro16. If European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) do not invite them into the Champions and Challenge Cups it will make a mockery of the new Pro16 format as teams will be seeking fourth and fifth spots to qualify for "Europe".


Leinster have the squad to compete, but Munster and Ulster, without their internationals, will struggle to cope with this behemoth rugby nation.

I envisage this setting Scottish rugby back a decade, unless they make a massive investment in their grassroots or flood the Glasgow and Edinburgh squads with, eh, South Africans. They are already watching Finn Russell tearing up Saracens in Racing 92 stripes while Stuart Hogg helps Exeter Chiefs make their first Champions Cup decider. All the best Scots will continue to journey south of the border.

Over in Wales, teenagers like Louis Rees-Zammit are being recruited by English versions of Clongowes Wood and St Michael's Colleges before entering Premiership academies. Perhaps this is the only way. The pandemic has exposed rugby administrators for filibustering to such an extent that the global rugby calendar has become a complete mess.

CVC Capital Partners are not investing hundreds of millions into the Pro14, Premiership and Six Nations as an expression of their undying love for the game. They want to extract annual dividends. Soon they will present a structure to faceless executives that enables them to bundle a broadcast package for Amazon Prime, or whoever wins the tender, that secures their only aim: profit.

Here we are, at the precipice, the point of no return for our 25-year-old professional sport. Once the South Africans enter the Pro14 everyone must jump off the cliff together.

Only the strongest will survive. Right now, that does not look like any of the Welsh teams. Their model has produced a better return than Ireland in both the Six Nations and World Cups, but the Scarlets’ 2017 Pro12 title remains an anomaly. I doubt the success achieved under Warren Gatland will continue if Wales’s regional sides fall further down the Afro-European pecking order.

What else can South Africa bring to European table?

For starters, sunshine coupled with physicality, visited upon opponents who must brace themselves for a line of charging Marcell Coetzees and CJ Standers. Overnight, the Pro16 will become the most brutal league on the planet. This means more injuries and shorter careers. Ask yourself how much does the Premiership and Top 14 assist or hinder their national sides?

Also, there is a long list of positive doping cases – 57 confirmed suspensions since 2011 – that may open a Pandora’s Box on performance-enhancing drugs.

The Arrival will also increase cross-pollination. Squads all over Europe will identify the next Eben Etzebeth and Duane Vermeulen quicker and seek to poach them from the SA franchises. This offers teams like Edinburgh and Ospreys a lifeline in the competitive stakes, by doing to the Bulls and Sharks what Ulster and Munster do to Leinster: scoop up the Joey Carberys and Jordi Murphys who cannot command a starting jersey at home.

That too will have an unintended consequence for national teams.

Virtuous circle

Maybe this will evolve into a virtuous circle. Maybe I have spent too much time sitting alone in our walk-in closet. It's already beginning to feel like one of those Egyptian tombs where, centuries from now, archaeologists will dig my embalmed body from the rubble in Milltown, where they will discover ancient Leinster, Ireland and Lions trinkets.

I really need to get back into the office.

Jokes aside, this feels like it is happening too fast. Consider everything before the unintended consequences floor somebody. The South Africans will, in so many ways, be welcome visitors to the RDS and Thomond Park in the depths of winter, but such a tectonic shift might prove the death knell for Australian rugby.

How would Sanzaar survive without the Springboks? Can the southern hemisphere create a new comp with Japan, Argentina and the Pacific Islands or will they continue to cherry-pick the best islanders – before the English and French academies get to them – and let Japan continue to offer retirement packages for ageing 'Boks and All Blacks?

Rugby needs a rightsizing, no doubt about it, but my concern is the lack of long-term planning.

At least, in the short term, the people of Perth are guaranteed a massive boost from The Rob Kearney Effect.

The Western Force is a great move for Rob, and well earned.

How Exeter built a sustainable club brick by brick

Exeter Chiefs’ growth in the 10 years since they arrived in the Premiership provides rugby with the best model for building a sustainable club brick by brick, without any shortcuts.

This can be confirmed by them clinching the double. Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo will be scratching me off their Christmas card list, but I hope Exeter bring the Champions Cup back to Devon.

I get the sense more traditional English clubs look down on the Chiefs due to where they come from – the beautiful southwest – and I'd say Rob Baxter has dropped that into the motivational meat grinder.

There isn't a secret to their success. They have a good batch of English players coming through an impressive system, but it is the way Baxter's coaching ticket facilitates as much as coaches the players to relentlessly go at opponents. On Saturday they beat Toulouse thanks to 11 players clocking double-digit metres in the carry. Their strike runners – Hogg, Henry Slade, Jack Nowell and Tom O'Flaherty – combined for 216 metres.

This style – which demands all the forwards can pass the ball – was evident when I played them in 2013. Back then, just like Rob Penney at Munster, they were slowly building something that would last for a very long time. The patience Baxter shows to players is rare. Gareth Steenson and Ian Whitten are good examples of players who did not make the cut in Ulster only to carve out serious careers at Exeter.

I don't buy into the idea that Saracens' financial activity denied them more than one Premiership title so far. Equally, they needed to experience losing to Leinster at Sandy Park and Dublin in 2017 to learn how to take the next step. The Exeter Chiefs' time is now. Their route to winning the ultimate prize is a brand new blueprint for success.