Former New Zealand head coach and current England defence chief John Mitchell believes some good may come for rugby union from the coronavirus if it creates “greater professionalism” thanks to a concentration of talent at fewer clubs worldwide, including Super Rugby.
Even before COVID-19 saw this year’s edition of Super Rugby suspended after seven rounds in March, there was a widespread view the southern hemisphere’s now 15-string premier club tournament had become increasingly unattractive for fans and broadcasters alike, with talent spread too thinly.
The pandemic has already had a huge financial impact on rugby and there are concerns current club structures won’t survive the outbreak fully intact.
England’s Rugby Football Union has lost £15 million ($19 million) so far due to the crisis, with Twickenham chiefs forecasting a total loss of £107 million if the autumn internationals are cancelled.
Meanwhile Rugby Australia, already reeling after reaching a multi-million dollar settlement with star player Israel Folau over his sacking for homophobic comments, have reported a $6 million operating deficit for last year.
They have also laid off 75 percent of staff, with chief executive Raelene Castle resigning amid accusations of mismanagement and sexism.
Japan’s Sunwolves are set to be axed from the 2021 Super Rugby season, which is planned to be a 14-team tournament featuring sides from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina.
– ‘Lost its value’ –
But Mitchell, once the coach of Australia’s now former Super Rugby side Western Force, indicated greater contraction was still required if the tournament was to return to its mid 1990s and early 2000s heyday.
“I’d like to probably see less markets…The example I give you is Super Rugby,” Mitchell told reporters in a conference call.
“When it first started it was 12 teams, I think I even played in the first Super 10 but it was probably at its best when it was 12 teams and the best players were playing,” added the 56-year-old, who coached the Chiefs in the Super 12 before guiding New Zealand to a third-place finish at the 2003 World Cup.
“They obviously wanted to create a style of rugby that suited the southern hemisphere from an athletic point of view.”
“Ultimately, because they’ve spread that all round the world, it’s in some ways spread players all round the world, creating greater costs.
“It’s probably lost its value in some ways because people want to watch the best players playing in their competition.”
The pandemic provided a backdrop to the recent re-election of Bill Beaumont as chairman of World Rugby, with the former England captain narrowly seeing off a challenge from Argentina great Agustin Pichot, who positioned himself as a reform candidate.
But while Mitchell, who as United States coach helped the Eagles qualify for last year’s World Cup, was sympathetic to the aspirations of emerging nations, he said there were still too many clubs where players could earn a salary.
“Japan has expanded, the second division in France has also. There’s a number of markets where players can derive an income and the thing is that ultimately there are so many players that can call themselves ‘professional’ I guess in position and title, but not necessarily in action.”
And Mitchell, who helped Eddie Jones plan England’s stunning 19-7 World Cup semi-final win over the All Blacks in Japan last year, said talented players had nothing to fear from a reduction in team numbers.
“Clearly, the players will probably still be the critical (thing), the biggest value but I’m sure it’s going to contract a lot more which in the end is going to create greater professionalism and more competition for places, which is healthy for the game as well.”