Professional rugby grows into adulthood
Sports talk There’s not the same buzz for Super Rugby as there was in those days of Fitzy, Zinny, Jonah and Tana.
Super Rugby has come of age, and my, how it’s grown. It doesn’t seem 21 seasons ago since rugby entered a bold, professional era with the introduction of the Super 12.
That competition evolved from the amateur South Pacific Championship, and the Super 6 and Super 10 competitions.
But it was different – it was professional. Players were guaranteed at least $65,000 a year. A referee like Paddy O’Brien could earn $45,000.
The players loved it. As Auckland Blues (the teams had geographic tags back then) captain Zinzan Brooke said after the opening match: ‘‘At least it’s a payday now.’’
In the early years there was great crowd support and television audiences were strong.
The first professional match was Wellington Hurricanes v Auckland Blues at the Palmerston North Showgrounds, which begs the question: why not play your opening match in a major stadium in a main city?
The Blues fielded a team of All Blacks, Zinzan and Robin Brooke, Sean Fitzpatrick, Jonah Lomu, Michael Jones and Olo Brown among them. The Hurricanes were led by Norm Hewitt and had firepower too, including Christian Cullen, Alama Ieremia, Tana Umaga and Bull Allen.
Ieremia scored the first try, but the Blues won 36-28, having trailed until the 75th minute.
The power-packed Blues were favourites to win the Super title, and duly delivered. The Hurricanes were at odds of 66:1. The bookies know their stuff – the Hurricanes still haven’t won the competition.
About 13,000 people turned up in Palmerston North and they loved the fast, open rugby.
Amazingly, the Crusaders, who have become the great team of Super Rugby, with seven titles, finished last in 1996.
New Zealand teams have dominated. Besides the Crusaders, the Blues have won three times, the Chiefs twice and the Highlanders once.
South African sides have won only three of the 20 titles, all by the Bulls. For Australia, the Brumbies twice, Waratahs and Reds have had victorious seasons.
New Zealand’s domination extends to individual recordholders. Most games – Keven Mealamu, 175. Most consecutive games – Caleb Ralph, 104. Most points – Daniel Carter, 1708. Most tries – Doug Howlett, 59. Most penalties – Andrew Mehrtens, 202. Most conversions – Carter, 185.
The Super 12 expanded to Super 14 in 2006 and Super 15 in 2011. Now there are 18 teams. Five countries, including Argentina and Japan, are involved. The television audience extends to more than 50 countries.
That first match in Palmerston North took place on March 1 , but the competition began even earlier after that until in 2007 it kicked off on February 2: peak summer. It used to finish in May, but now it extends until August.
Some say rugby officials are killing the goose that lays the golden egg, that rugby has reached saturation point.
Certainly there’s not the same buzz for Super Rugby as there was in those days of Fitzy, Zinny, Jonah and Tana.
But at the business end of the competition, the fervour is undeniably there – think back to the intense interest last year in that cracking HighlandersHurricanes final.
The rugby administrators who designed the Super 12 in 1996 would surely be proud to see how their baby has grown into a full adult.
Zinzan Brooke leads the Auckland Blues on to the Palmerston North Showgrounds on March 1, 1996, to kick off the professional rugby era.