The New Zealand Herald

Super smash derbies good and bad

Interest levels on the rise again with more local showdowns but injuries taking huge toll on players and teams

- Gregor Paul

Turning back the clock on Super Rugby seems to have fixed it. Word out of South Africa is that broadcast audiences in the early weeks were much increased on last year, as they have been in Australia.

Attendance­s haven’t uniformly climbed but there have been major lifts in various places. The Rebels drew their biggest crowd since 2011 when they played the Hurricanes and the Bulls have seen an average of almost 18,000 turn up to their home games compared with 9000 last year.

The sense that the competitio­n is in free fall has at least halted.

Regardless of territory, what is driving the interest is the increased volume of intra-conference games.

Maybe not surprising­ly, local audi- ences love local games and the fact there are more of them this year is at the heart of Super Rugby’s revival.

Under the doomed 18-team format of 2016 and 2017 each team played six derbies, now they play eight and by doing so, Super Rugby has won back many disenchant­ed fans. With the financial picture brighter than it has been, executives from all teams and broadcaste­rs are adamant they want local games to dominate any future version of the competitio­n.

That view is particular­ly strong in New Zealand, where the intraconfe­rence games are at a different level to anything else.

Every weekend there’s been a rollicking New Zealand derby. They have come thick and fast and it won’t be until week 11 that there is no allKiwi contest and only one other weekend when there is no local derby featuring New Zealand teams.

It is, presumably, deliberate that there has been at least one New Zealand derby each weekend and given their previous blundering in trying to build a consumer-friendly schedule, Sanzaar has to be acknowledg­ed for at least giving everyone what they want.

Everyone, that is, accept the players. They are not as sold on the eight derby games a year as the fans.

The intensity and brutality of these clashes are what makes them so compelling, but the toll on the players is starting to mount and there is a dawning realisatio­n that the incredible injury toll suffered by New Zealand teams in the first eight weeks is likely a direct consequenc­e of so many local derbies.

Almost every derby to date has taken major casualties. Last weekend Damian McKenzie, George Moala and Jerome Kaino were all damaged as the Blues and Chiefs knocked the living daylights out of each other. Moala and Kaino will both miss the Blues next game Sunwolves in Japan.

Sam Whitelock and Ryan Crotty were both concussed playing against the Hurricanes. Liam Squire broke his thumb playing against the Crusaders; Nepo Laulala broke his arm playing against the Blues; Matt Todd broke his thumb playing against the Chiefs and Blues captain Augustine Pulu was ruled out for six weeks when he was playing against the Chiefs.

There is now a genuine question of sustainabi­lity as the players and coaches are beginning to wonder what state the troops will be in by the final few weeks of the competitio­n. And at some stage the mental and physical fatigue is going to grip.

Super Rugby may have fixed much of what was wrong before, but in doing so has created a new problem. against the

 ?? Picture / Photosport ?? Chiefs lock Brodie Retallick charges into Blues halfback Jonathan Ruru last weekend.
Picture / Photosport Chiefs lock Brodie Retallick charges into Blues halfback Jonathan Ruru last weekend.

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