Super Rugby looks worryingly limp this year, especially in Australia and South Africa.
Sure, immediate post-World Cup seasons provoke the usual player exodus. But this year seems worse; not at all usual.
A lot's been said already about the New Zealand franchises – heavy losses from the Crusaders, the arrival of Warren Gatland and departure of Brodie Retallick from the Chiefs, lost talent from the Hurricanes in Beauden Barrett and (injured) Ardie Savea, the outgoing flood from the Highlanders and the inability of anyone to predict what the Blues will do.
But they almost look like world-beaters compared to some of the South African and Australian squads. To say there are large holes in their line-ups would be being unkind to large holes. Some look like training squads or extended versions, peppered with names little-known or unknown.
Youth in Mitre 10 squads is expected; it's a rugby nursery of sorts and there is interest in watching the next generation come through. But a trawl through all Super Rugby squads, examining those gone from last year and those coming in, is revealing.
A total of 230 players have left. That does not even include the Sunwolves who have had a massive clean-out – to be expected in the franchise's final year in Super Rugby— with most of last year's line-up opting for Japanese club rugby.
Applying more of a filter brings a worrying picture. Tot up the international players and senior pros – first-choice guys who have served their franchises long and well – and you find 118 have left, mostly for the northern hemisphere. Only nine shifted to other Super Rugby teams.
That's equivalent to seven teams of internationals and senior players – a whole lot of DNA sucked out of Super Rugby's cells. The picture is skewed by the Sunwolves who have lost 24 such players but even omitting them (they have imported plenty for 2020 but only two, Ben Te'o and JJ Englbrecht, make it through the international/senior pro filter) still means 94 have moved on. That's six teams of internationals/senior pros gone with few big names coming in.
This disappearing act coincides with one more year of endurance before the long-awaited death of the conference system – one more season of this Looney Tunes structure before Sanzaar bury it, hopefully in the deepest pit they can find; it did Super Rugby little good.
The other reason this is a big year for Super Rugby is the broadcast agreement – to be renegotiated after crowd numbers fell and TV audiences plateaued last season. Things will revert to a round-robin next year (with no Sunwolves) but Sanzaar will want the 2020 competition to be wearing its shiniest shoes and providing real entertainment.
That's because there will be less to see in 2021; the 18-week season will become 13 weeks, with the number of games falling from 127 to 96. There will be fewer derby games – popular in New Zealand and South Africa, in particular, and responsible for big audiences (as well as banged-up players). Broadcasters will want to know what they'll get for what they pay for a reduced menu.
Unfortunately, the lead-in to this new system will coincide with some seriously weakened franchises, even outside the dead men walking of the Sunwolves. In South Africa, the Stormers are the only team looking strong, having retained a significant number of World Cup players. The Bulls, Sharks and Lions all look to be re-building with the Bulls' woes illustrated by the loss of first-five Handre Pollard and three senior locks (Lood de Jager, RG Snyman and Jason Jenkins with only one senior replacement, Juande Kruger, returning from Toulon).
Last year's beaten finalists, the Jaguares, have lost a few veterans (Tomas Lavanini, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, the excellent Pablo Matera and winger Ramiro Moyano) but could win the South African conference. Lavanini's move to Leicester will likely mean the Jaguares' red and yellow card statistics will fall dramatically.
Australia's sides were ordinary last year – and none seems stronger. Many of the Australia under-20s team will come through and could eventually build the base of a decent Wallabies team. But, right now, all are short of experienced locks and first fives with Bernard Foley, Christian Lealiifano and Quade Cooper all gone at No 10 and second rowers Adam Coleman, Rory Arnold and Sam Carter also overseas.
The Brumbies look among the hardest hit with the loss of the likes of David Pocock, Lealiifano, winger Henry Speight and their engine room of Arnold and Carter though, if they can manage somewhere near parity up front, they seem to have talented backs, including former Warrior Solomone Kata.
The Reds are a largely unknown quantity, the Rebels finished 11th in the overall standings last year, with little pointing to a higher finish this time. The Waratahs are without experienced front rowers Sekope Kepu, Tolu Latu and Tatafu Polota-Nau; halfback Nick Phipps, Foley, Adam Ashley-Cooper, and fire and brimstone preacher Israel Folau. The Brumbies could yet be the strongest in the Australian conference, though how they compare to the New Zealand teams will be a better gauge.
So Super Rugby 2020 will be, on one hand, about who best survives this year's drought of experienced players and, on the other, who can best build a young squad into something competitive for the new set-up in 2021.