Su­per Rugby has been boom and then bust. But what is next for this once great com­pe­ti­tion?

SU­PER RUGBY WAS ONCE THE ENVY OF THE WORLD BE­FORE IT GOT GREEDY AND EX­PANDED TOO QUICKLY. HAV­ING CUT THREE TEAMS AT THE END OF LAST YEAR, IT HAS PO­TEN­TIALLY SOWN THE SEEDS FOR A BRIGHTER FU­TURE.

NZ Rugby World - - Contents - Gre­gor Paul re­ports.

Time hasn’t been kind to Su­per Rugby. It hasn’t aged well. When the fore­run­ner Su­per 10 tour­na­ment be­gan in the late am­a­teur age, there was noth­ing but op­ti­mism.

The cross bor­der con­cept was ex­cit­ing. It was full of pos­si­bil­i­ties and in­trigue. That mood was only en­hanced when the pro­fes­sional age was ush­ered in and Su­per 12 cre­ated with the mil­lions that came from Ru­pert Mur­doch’s broad­cast dol­lars.

Su­per 12 was the best against the best. It was a short, sharp tour­na­ment where one loss could change ev­ery­thing.

There weren’t many easy games and in some years there weren’t any. The Aus­tralians had three teams, and that meant they could stuff a lot of tal­ent into each. The Africans with four teams were much the same and the nov­elty of be­ing in the Re­pub­lic added a whole dif­fer­ent di­men­sion to the dif­fi­culty of play­ing there.

And the New Zealand sides were what they al­ways are – or­gan­ised, tal­ented, com­mit­ted and tough.

The stan­dard was high across the board be­cause it needed to be to win games. Test se­lec­tion philoso­phies were a lit­tle dif­fer­ent back then, too. Coaches were more in­flu­enced by form and that meant test play­ers had to per­form. They had to be ready to go from game one through to the bit­ter end.

There was no talk of squad man­age­ment. The com­pe­ti­tion was too short for that and most teams looked to pick their top team all of the time.

As for the for­mat...it made per­fect sense. It was a straight roundrobin. Pure and sim­ple: ev­ery team played ev­ery team and the top four made the play­offs. No one needed a de­gree to work out what was go­ing on.

You could look at the ta­ble and see in­stantly where things were at. For 10 years be­tween 1996 and 2005 crowds were good, TV au­di­ences steadily climbed and gen­eral in­ter­est was high.

Peo­ple seemed to care about Su­per Rugby. And it wasn’t just the trag­ics. It was a tour­na­ment that cap­tured the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion – enough to be a safe wa­ter­cooler topic for work col­leagues who didn’t know too much about one an­other.

In­evitably, per­haps, given the suc­cess of Su­per 12, the de­ci­sion was made to ex­pand in 2006. Aus­tralia had long been lob­by­ing for a fourth team and the Africans wanted a fifth.

The the­ory was that with two ex­tra teams the essence of the com­pe­ti­tion would stay the same and the fans would be get­ting more of a good thing.

The for­mat re­mained a roundrobin so it was a case of get­ting a longer, bet­ter tour­na­ment claimed Sanzaar. But that was wish­ful think­ing. Af­ter four years with 14 teams there was clear ev­i­dence that ex­pan­sion hadn’t de­liv­ered what the ad­min­is­tra­tors had hoped.

Nei­ther of the new teams were able to find their feet. The Force and Chee­tahs both strug­gled. There were sud­denly easy games. Crowds dropped in all three coun­tries. Some of the tight­ness of the com­pe­ti­tion was lost. It was longer and less in­tense.

When the de­ci­sion was made to ex­pand again in 2011 there was both con­cern and op­ti­mism as the jump to 15 teams brought a new for­mat. The con­fer­ence con­cept was in­tro­duced with home and away games and

WE’VE SEEN, ACROSS ALL THE MAR­KETS, THERE’S BEEN A STEADY DE­CLINE IN TV VIEWERSHIP AND MATCH AT­TEN­DANCE.

COU­PLED WITH SOME EX­TREMELY LOPSIDED RE­SULTS THAT HAVE BEEN COM­ING OUT OF THE GAMES, AND THE FALL­ING CROWD FIG­URES AND BROAD­CAST NUM­BERS, WE BE­LIEVE IT WAS THE RIGHT TIME TO IM­PLE­MENT A CHANGE.’ ANDY MARINOS

a new sys­tem to de­ter­mine which teams qual­i­fied.

Any hope this new set up was a win­ner died quickly. The over­all qual­ity of rugby dropped, es­pe­cially in Aus­tralia where the in­crease to five teams was too much.

They didn’t have the tal­ent base to pop­u­late so many teams and Su­per Rugby be­came a con­vo­luted mess where for ev­ery high qual­ity game there were two duds.

It be­came a long slog to the tape and yet the ex­ec­u­tives in charge con­vinced them­selves ev­ery­thing was track­ing well.

So well in fact, they de­cided to in­vite an­other three teams in 2016. It was mad­ness. By 2016 Su­per Rugby was 50 per cent big­ger than when it be­gan. It was no longer a roundrobin but run in a com­pli­cated, al­most un­fath­omable for­mat.

It was strange be­yond be­lief that the peo­ple run­ning the game couldn’t see what they had done. They were per­haps blinded by the fact that by hav­ing 18 teams, they saw broad­cast rev­enue rise by 100 per cent.

But travel costs had risen by about the same amount. At­ten­dances had all but col­lapsed ev­ery­where. Spon­sors were harder to find and not of­fer­ing as much and play­ers were head­ing off­shore in their droves.

Su­per Rugby was bro­ken. The ad­mis­sion fi­nally came in March 2017.

“We’ve seen, across all the mar­kets, there’s been a steady de­cline in TV viewership and match at­ten­dance,” lamented Sanzaar chief ex­ec­u­tive Andy Marinos.

“Cou­pled with some ex­tremely lopsided re­sults that have been com­ing out of the games, and the fall­ing crowd fig­ures and broad­cast num­bers, we be­lieve it was the right time to im­ple­ment a change.”

That change was a re­duc­tion to 15 teams and a re­ver­sion to the for­mat that ran be­tween 2011 and 2015.

“Sanzaar can­not con­tinue to ig­nore the ex­ten­sive feed­back that it has re­ceived from fans, stake­hold­ers and com­mer­cial part­ners around the in­tegrity of the com­pe­ti­tion for­mat and per­for­mances of the teams,” said Marinos.

“We want to see an en­gag­ing, vi­brant and com­pet­i­tive com­pe­ti­tion that de­liv­ers a strong high per­for­mance path­way in all mar­kets that will have a pos­i­tive flow into the in­ter­na­tional game.

“It be­came clear dur­ing our strate­gic as­sess­ment that there are two facets to the fu­ture of our tour­na­ments. The first is a re­quire­ment to re­act to ex­ist­ing mar­ket forces within the sport­ing busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment and to im­ple­ment short-term change to Su­per Rugby. This is what we have done.

“The se­cond is the longer term vi­sion, through a strate­gic plan, to build the brand that in the fu­ture can max­imise fur­ther de­vel­op­ment of the game, com­mer­cial rev­enues and the on­go­ing sus­tain­abil­ity of the tour­na­ments.”

HOW MANY TEAMS DOES IT SEE AS OP­TI­MAL AND WHAT KIND OF FOR­MAT DOES IT NEED TO BE ABLE TO GROW INTO NEW MAR­KETS AND SUS­TAIN IN­TER­EST?

AND IF IT DOES EX­PAND, AT WHAT PACE SHOULD THAT HAP­PEN?

The short term fu­ture of Su­per Rugby is con­sol­i­da­tion. The cur­rent broad­cast deal runs through to the end of 2019 and there won’t be, or at least there is not ex­pected to be, any change in for­mat be­tween now and then.

Sanzaar is de­ter­mined to make the 15-team for­mat work. There needs to be sta­bil­ity and if not growth in the key met­rics, then at least a halt to the alarm­ing slide.

Ba­si­cally, Su­per Rugby has to win back the love. It has to prove to peo­ple it is a com­pelling, en­gag­ing tour­na­ment with mean­ing.

The qual­ity has to rise. There has to be less of a gulf be­tween the best and the rest. That was one of the ma­jor prob­lems in 2016 and 2017 – the New Zealand sides and the Lions were miles ahead of ev­ery­one else. It was a two-tier tour­na­ment and there was lit­tle in­trigue.

The big­ger prob­lem, how­ever, was the lack of in­tegrity at­tached to the for­mat. The New Zealand sides had it tougher than ev­ery­one else and the ridicu­lous play­off sys­tem saw the best teams play away from home.

A com­pe­ti­tion with­out eq­uity was doomed and a sense of fair­ness has to be re­stored.

So that is what the next two sea­sons are about – re­build­ing con­fi­dence in Su­per Rugby. The goal is to re­cap­ture the essence of Su­per 12 – the best against the best that drives the stan­dards of South­ern Hemi­sphere rugby.

Hope­fully that will bring the fans back. Hope­fully that will sta­bilise the TV au­di­ence and hope­fully that will have spon­sors re­con­nect­ing.

Longer term, though, Sanzaar hasn’t made the big re­veal. We don’t know yet whether there re­mains an ap­petite for ex­pan­sion.

It didn’t work be­fore but that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean it can’t work in the fu­ture. Sanzaar has pre­sum­ably learned some­thing from its mis­takes.’

The big pic­ture el­e­ment for Sanzaar to an­swer first is what kind of scale they want for Su­per Rugby. When it all be­gan in 1996 the vi­sion was to es­tab­lish a com­pe­ti­tion across the three South­ern Hemi­sphere heavy­weight na­tions of New Zealand, South Africa and Aus­tralia.

By 2016 Su­per Rugby had stretched into Ja­pan, Sin­ga­pore and Ar­gentina and was be­ing played across 15 time zones.

Sanzaar needs to de­ter­mine how much of a foot­print it wants glob­ally. It needs to de­ter­mine whether it wants to spread across more coun­tries or build greater pres­ence in the ones in which is has al­ready laid down a flag.

How many teams does it see as op­ti­mal and what kind of for­mat does it need to be able to grow into new mar­kets and sus­tain in­ter­est?

And if it does ex­pand, at what pace should that hap­pen? We saw in 2016 that three new teams in one year was too much.

Cer­tain things have be­come ob­vi­ous when it comes to in­tro­duc­ing new teams. The first is that the play­ing qual­ity of the squad is the most im­por­tant as­pect to get right.

Look at the Sun­wolves. They were brought in on the ba­sis that Sanzaar was des­per­ate to have a pres­ence in Ja­pan – the world’s third largest econ­omy and a boom­ing growth mar­ket. That bit made sense but the Sun­wolves had no rugby jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to be in­cluded.

They scram­bled to fill their ros­ter with re­luc­tant lo­cals and a hand­ful of Aus­tralian, New Zealand and South African cast offs. The re­sults were pre­dictably bad.

Any new side brought into Su­per Rugby will need to tick the rugby box first. There will need to be a base con­fi­dence that if a new side is in­tro­duced, it will de­liver on the field.

That’s why there is gen­uine po­ten­tial for

a Pa­cific Is­land team to be in­tro­duced in 2021. There is no ques­tion that the Is­lands have the play­ers to com­pete.

That box is al­ready ticked. What Sanzaar are cur­rently do­ing is wait­ing for the re­sults of a fea­si­bil­ity study to see if Fiji – which has the largest pop­u­la­tion and most ad­vanced in­fra­struc­ture – could prove to be a sus­tain­able base for a Su­per Rugby team.

The ques­tion is whether set­ting up a team in Fiji would have fi­nan­cial vi­a­bil­ity.

Fiji has proven it­self in re­cent years by host­ing the Cru­saders and Chiefs and it has the crit­i­cal ad­van­tage of only be­ing a three-hour flight from New Zealand and about the same from Aus­tralia.

It is prob­a­ble that Sanzaar is also ea­ger to in­ves­ti­gate the prospect of hav­ing a pres­ence in North Amer­ica. Be­hind Ja­pan, the USA is the next most po­ten­tially lu­cra­tive mar­ket. The game is grow­ing there and Sanzaar wants to be in at ground level.

But the prospect of set­ting up in the USA brings us back to the wider ques­tion of scale and how would plonk­ing one team there fit into the wider for­mat?

At the mo­ment there are sig­nif­i­cantly more ques­tions than there are an­swers and more scep­ti­cism than there is op­ti­mism.

But Su­per Rugby is a lit­tle like an oil tanker, in that it will take a long time to turn. The process has at least started and a chas­tened Sanzaar ex­ec­u­tive have fi­nally seen what ev­ery­one was telling them.

The fu­ture of Su­per Rugby is not bright as such, but it is brighter than it was this time last year.

FIJI HAS PROVEN IT­SELF IN RE­CENT YEARS BY HOST­ING THE CRU­SADERS AND CHIEFS...

Su­per Rugby used to cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion of even the ca­sual rugby fol­lower. GLORY DAYS

ANDY MARINOS

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