Lions veterans hope South Africa sticks with Super Rugby

Lions captain Elton Jantjies says he still has the fire to play Super Rugby and hopes South Africa continue to play a part in the competition long into the future Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images/Getty Images

SYDNEY -- Springboks Elton Jantjies and Warren Whiteley do not want to see South Africa's franchises withdraw from Super Rugby completely, the duo insisting the competition is the right sphere for South Africa to play in.

Speculation that South Africa will head north, either at provincial or Test level, or even both, continues to bubble across the rugby world, while a recent Daily Mail report suggesting the Springboks would join the Six Nations from 2024 really shifted the narrative up another gear.

While the validity of that report was questioned - particularly given SA Rugby has already tied itself to SANZAAR through 2025 - it was another instance of the discussion that has been building in the Republic since Super Rugby's failed expansion after the 2015 World Cup.

That eventually brought about the removal of the Southern Kings and Cheetahs franchises, so too Australia's Western Force, with the South African outfits heading north to join the PRO14 -- a provincial competition spread across Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Italy.

It was viewed as SA Rugby testing the water on an exit from Super Rugby, but both Jantjies and Whiteley agree that would not be in the best interests of the game in South Africa.

"I said it earlier I can't see it happening," Jantjies told ESPN. "For me personally I really enjoy Super Rugby. I had numerous offers overseas to go and play in the northern hemisphere; but I'm really excited, this is my tenth year now in Super Rugby, it's quite a while, but I still feel that energy and I still feel like it's a test of character and your beliefs, and I like those.

"I like the tough stuff, I believe it's a great competition and it's a competition that should never die. It's a competition that works for Australian rugby, that works for New Zealand rugby and it works for us [South Africa] as well. And now with the Jaguares, the Argentina side, they've picked up big time in experience and ways to play; they were very competitive in Super Rugby last year, they made the final.

"So I think it's a really good competition, I don't see us losing this 25 years of Super Rugby [development]."

Injury may have curtailed teammate Whiteley's playing career, but he remains no less enthused by the competition's value after moving over to the Lions coaching team.

The former Springboks captain said Super Rugby had been a "huge" contributor to a career that saw him play 23 Tests and 94 Super Rugby games.

"If I just look at my personal development as a player, Super Rugby changed my life," Whiteley said. "The development I got through this competition, playing against the best players in the world and developing my personal game, has been phenomenal. It's a competition like no other; it's brutal; you have to learn fast, and its week-in, week out. So I see it as a premium competition."

The backing of Whiteley and Jantjies comes as SANZAAR chief executive Andy Marinos said there was no clear indication from SA Rugby officials that the nation would leave the alliance.

"It's nothing more than media speculation, and I think someone is just trying to stoke a little bit of fire," he said. "But our directive has been really clear and they've been pretty consistent, [that] if there's anything they need to tell us about any of their plans, they'll certainly bring that to the table. And as I said they haven't done that, and when I've asked [they've said] it's nothing more than speculation."

Super Rugby will revert to a 14-team round-robin competition from next season with the Sunwolves - the Japanese expansion side that joined the tournament in 2016 - exiting at the end of this year.

While Australian franchises have already declared their financial concerns at having one or two fewer home games in alternating years, the hope is that an equitable tournament structure - one that is also far simpler to understand - may resonate with disengaged supporters.

Whiteley agrees that will be the case and says proof of the tournament's worth lies in the fact that all but one Rugby World Cup has been taken out by a southern hemisphere nation.

"Yes, there are tweaks that we need to make here and there but I believe that the people at the top are thinking in the right direction and are always collaborating with players as well," he said. "I think it's the view of all that we probably need to nip and tuck here and there, but I don't think there's any drastic changes that need to be made.

"The best talent in the world is still here, we've seen World Cup results over the years, [nine out of 10] World Cups have been won by southern hemisphere sides and that speaks for itself in terms of quality of players within this competition.

"[It's an] unbelievable competition, I love being in Australia and travelling, you learn a lot and develop."