NZ Rugby World - - Contents -

FI­NALLY SANZAAR SAW SENSE. Fi­nally they took the decisive ac­tion that was needed to save Su­per Rugby and cut the num­ber of teams from 18 to 15.

It had to hap­pen. The com­pe­ti­tion was in dan­ger of im­plod­ing if it went an­other year in the same con­vo­luted, non­sen­si­cal three-con­fer­ence for­mat that be­gan in 2016.

And we re­ally do mean im­plode. The fi­nances of many teams were at break­ing point. The sit­u­a­tion in Aus­tralia was par­tic­u­larly dire where the Force and Rebels had been heav­ily bailed out by the Aus­tralian Rugby Union and the Reds and Brumbies had also needed some kind of fi­nan­cial help in pre­vi­ous years.

The South Africans were hang­ing on by a thread and if they had been asked to fund six teams in 2018, the con­se­quences could have been dis­as­trous.

There was just too much to fund: too many play­ers, coaches and med­i­cal staff. Too much travel as well. Bring­ing in the Sun­wolves and Jaguares didn’t just lower the over­all qual­ity, it added a sig­nif­i­cant amount of long haul air travel which is not cheap.

The equa­tion was all wrong – costs were go­ing through the roof while rev­enue strug­gled to keep apace.

And there was not enough money com­ing back in largely be­cause the rugby watch­ing pub­lic felt they were be­ing force-fed a com­pe­ti­tion lack­ing in cred­i­bil­ity, in­tegrity and gen­uine qual­ity.

The broad­cast deal signed in 2016 was a 100 per cent in­crease on the pre­vi­ous deal and thank good­ness for that, be­cause with­out that in­jec­tion, things wouldn’t have been vi­able.

But thank­fully Sanzaar could see that if they didn’t make changes, then come the next ne­go­ti­a­tion with the broad­cast­ers, the over­all value of Su­per Rugby was go­ing to be sig­nif­i­cantly less and boom, there re­ally would be trou­ble.

Dis­as­ter has mo­men­tar­ily at least been avoided and with the Force, Chee­tahs and Kings hav­ing been axed and the pre­vi­ous three-con­fer­ence for­mat of 2011-2015 re­stored, Su­per Rugby be­gins in 2018 with con­sid­er­ably more op­ti­mism and ex­cite­ment than it did in ei­ther 2016 and 2017.

The restora­tion of the old for­mat is not per­fect but it is about as good an op­tion as was avail­able given such short no­tice and a need to pre­serve the broad­cast in­come.

The de­ci­sion to re­shape the play­offs into a sim­pler, more equitable sys­tem is hugely im­por­tant, too. This year the three con­fer­ence win­ners and the next five high­est teams will qual­ify.

Noth­ing irked more in the last two years than see­ing teams such as the Brumbies with six vic­to­ries, host­ing a quar­ter­fi­nal against New Zealand sides who had won dou­ble the num­ber of games.

So the tour­na­ment it­self makes more if not to­tal sense and with 15 teams the qual­ity should be higher – there should be fewer lopsided or at least fewer horribly lopsided games.

That’s ev­i­denced by the Rebels, who were the weak­est side last year and yet could be a gen­uine play­off con­tender in 2018. They picked up the best parts of the Force and the ef­fec­tive amal­ga­ma­tion of the two could see the Rebels be­come a vastly im­proved side.

That’s the point ev­ery­one was try­ing to make in re­cent years – that Aus­tralia’s tal­ent needed to be con­densed into fewer teams not spread across more.

And now that it has, it may be that the Aus­tralian sides jump in qual­ity and start win­ning again. Re­mem­ber, they didn’t post a sin­gle vic­tory against New Zealand sides last year and that state of af­fairs can’t con­tinue.

What we need to see this year is a change in the pat­tern: for New Zealand’s dom­i­na­tion to be chal­lenged.

In the last two years, only the Lions have of­fered any kind of mean­ing­ful chal­lenge to the four best Kiwi teams. It’s made life kind of dull if we are hon­est.

It would be good if both the Waratahs and Rebels lifted this year to push deep into the play­offs.

The Storm­ers and Sharks have wal­lowed in medi­ocrity for far too long and one of them needs to come good, ac­tu­ally string to­gether a sus­tained cam­paign and give South Africa an­other se­ri­ous player.

And maybe this is a step too far, but it would be a ma­jor boost for Su­per Rugby if the Jaguares could de­liver in 2018. It’s a bit am­bi­tious – given the over­all tran­si­tional state of Ar­gen­tinian rugby – to be­lieve the Jaguares will be up the top end of the ta­ble in 2018, but cer­tainly they have enough good play­ers and ex­pe­ri­ence in their coach­ing team to be win­ning more than they have.

It would be good to feel that progress is be­ing made in Ar­gentina – that the de­ci­sion to in­vite them into Sanzaar is start­ing to pay div­i­dends and that they are learn­ing, grow­ing and de­vel­op­ing.

Above all else, though, what needs to be re­stored is a gen­uine sense of drama and ten­sion where each game kicks off with both teams har­bour­ing a rea­son­able con­vic­tion that they can win. Or more im­por­tantly, both sets of fans and neu­trals be­liev­ing that could hap­pen.

It won’t quite end up like that this year but there is rea­son to be­lieve Su­per Rugby in 2018 will be more com­pet­i­tive, more dra­matic and more fun.

Gre­gor Paul, Edi­tor

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