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.
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