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