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The South African Rugby Union decided Tuesday to withdraw its top club teams from Super Rugby in favor of playing in Europe’s PRO14 league, and blamed New Zealand for the sudden breakup of the southern hemisphere competition.

The decision was made after a vote of SARU’s provincial unions and the defection could come into effect as soon as next year if an agreement is reached with PRO Rugby Championship, which runs the PRO14. It would mean the top four teams in South Africa — the Bulls, Stormers, Sharks and Lions — will now play their domestic rugby against clubs from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy instead of their traditional rivals in New Zealand and Australia.

South Africa’s top teams have only ever played club rugby against fellow southern hemisphere opposition and have been part of Super Rugby since the tournament’s informal inception in the early 1990s, when rugby was still an amateur sport.

The world champion Springboks would still play tests against New Zealand, Australia and Argentina in the four-nation Rugby Championship, SARU said. Realistically, however, South Africa’s participation in that championship might also be reconsidered once its top domestic teams’ seasons align with the northern hemisphere.

SARU said the decision to abandon Super Rugby in favor of playing European teams was forced by New Zealand’s “unilateral” decision to organize its own domestic competition, or possibly a trans-Tasman competition involving Australian and other teams for next year. That decision appeared to be made because of uncertainty over if a traditional Super Rugby tournament could go ahead amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, SARU said it considered it a slight to not be consulted.

“Our members are excited about the prospect of closer alignment with PRO Rugby Championship and seeking a northern hemisphere future, but we would not have been taking this decision but for actions elsewhere,” SARU chief executive Jurie Roux said.

“We will advise our SANZAAR partners of the general meeting’s decision.”

Despite Roux’s comments blaming New Zealand, there have been strong rumors for years that South Africa was seeking to leave its southern hemisphere partnership and play club rugby against European teams. There are seemingly two clear advantages for South African rugby: Similar time zones that would lessen the impact of traveling and, perhaps crucially, access to a much richer television market.

South Africa may still have one team in a reduced future Super Rugby tournament, it said. SARU would negotiate with SANZAAR, the body that runs Super Rugby, to put the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs in any new version of the tournament. The Cheetahs have been part of the PRO14 since 2017 after being cut from Super Rugby but will go the other way and rejoin Super Rugby if an agreement is reached between SARU and SANZAAR.

The departure of the top four South African teams is a body blow for Super Rugby and SANZAAR. South Africa, with a population of 58 million, is by far the biggest television audience for Super Rugby, leading some to conclude it is the most important member of the southern hemisphere partnership despite the fact that New Zealand teams have dominated on the field.

In recent years, Super Rugby has added teams from Argentina and Japan in an attempt to increase its reach, with very limited success. The Japanese team was dropped this year.

Tuesday’s news also means there will likely be a frosty atmosphere between the countries when — or rather if — this year’s virus-delayed Rugby Championship is held in November and December in Australia.

New Zealand has rejected the new schedule for the tournament because it would likely mean its players have to be in quarantine at Christmas when they return home. South Africa, the defending champion, is yet to confirm its participation because its virus lockdown meant its players only returned to action this weekend. They might not be ready to play international rugby. Argentina also has significant organizational problems, including numerous players contracting COVID-19.

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