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South Africa Six Nations move report prompts scepticism

(Mark Tantrum/Getty Images)

Leading rugby figures have expressed doubt about the prospects of South African joining an expanded Six Nations championship, after the possible move was reported by UK newspaper the Daily Mail.

The Mail reported that talks about adding South Africa as a seventh team to the European competition have been taking place for some time, and there was “a sense of inevitability” among stakeholders that it would happen. According to the report, South Africa would make the move in 2024, after the next Rugby World Cup.

The mooted move would mean South Africa abandoning the Southern Hemisphere’s annual Rugby Championship competition, where it currently competes with New Zealand, Australia and Argentina.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson at the weekend dismissed the report. He pointed out that the South African Rugby Union, via its membership of Sanzaar, the grouping of the major Southern Hemisphere rugby unions, was bound into media rights deals covering Sanzaar competitions until the end of 2025. These deals include a major deal by NZ Rugby with pay-television broadcaster Sky New Zealand, signed last year. The Sanzaar competitions are the Rugby Championship and the Super Rugby club competition.

The New Zealand Herald reported that Robinson said: “I think this is the third time now in the past month that there’s been reports out of the Northern Hemisphere that are going to join the Six Nations…

“We’re very comfortable in our relationship and South Africa’s relationship with Sanzaar. Like us, they’ve signed agreements with their broadcasters through 2025 to be involved with Sanzaar. And as recently as this week we were on calls talking about the future of our competitions at Super level and international level. So Sanzaar and certainly South Africa were very engaged in those conversations.

“They are people that we trust, they are very honest and they’ve been great partners over the last 25 years. We would like to think that we would be privy to those sorts of comments or conversations if they had been had.”

The England team’s head coach Eddie Jones said expanding the Six Nations could dilute its appeal. “It’s called the greatest rugby tournament in the world and I think it is. So why would you want to add other teams that are going to decrease the level of competition?” he said, reported by Irish public-service broadcaster RTE.

“I can only talk from experience. Super Rugby was the golden egg of rugby – brilliant, 12 teams, competitive. As soon as it had gone to 14 and 15, it had lost its allure.”

A move by South Africa to the Six Nations would, in the short-term at least, significantly increase the competition’s commercial value and significantly reduce the commercial value of the Rugby Championship.

As well as the potential for increased income, one of the major reasons for the move would be that the Six Nations is played in much more favourable time zones for South African players and television audiences than the Rugby Championship.

South Africa currently has two provincial teams competing in the largely European Pro14 league, in which the remaining teams hail from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy.

The report is the latest in a series of proposed and reported changes to the structure of international rugby. Also on the cards recently have been the entry of Japan and Fiji to either the Rugby Championship or the Six Nations, and the joining of the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship to create an annual, global, national team competition. A proposal for the latter by World Rugby, backed by the Infront agency, fell apart last year.