Well, that’s it, another season of Super Rugby has concluded with the Crusaders taking out a well-deserved title in Johannesburg. Whilst most of us will be sad to see another season of Super Rugby pass by, for many of us die-hard rugby fans, the prospect of the return to international rugby – and even domestic rugby – seems particularly enticing at this point. It shouldn’t be this way, but the mismanagement of Super Rugby is killing the game.
Now, not that Super Rugby is not exciting, in fact, that is far from the truth. The point I am trying to make here is that as has been highly publicised in recent times, the Super Rugby competition is a mess. With a double-conference format, like we see in American sports to address issues such as travel, the competition itself has suffered as a result. The result is a very lopsided competition, with a New Zealand-dominated Australasian conference, highlighted by not one single Australian side managing to beat a New Zealand side in 29 attempts throughout 2017. On the other side, the South African conference is solely dictated by one-side, the Lions, who won all but one game throughout the 2017 regular season.
To illustrate the shambles that this competition has become, one need only reflect on the fact that a team such as the ACT Brumbies – who managed a below-par total of six wins in 15 games – were rewarded with a home quarter-final, simply because they were the best Australian side. This was even though all five New Zealand sides had a better record than the Brumbies, with the Blues not making the playoffs at all. The Brumbies only edged this quarter final slot ahead of the Western Force, a team that has been kicked out of the competition after SANZAAR’s decision to shift from 18 to 15 teams next year.
To make matters worse, this quarterfinal consequently attracted a measly crowd of less than 10,000, a number that for a quarterfinal at this level of rugby is simply unacceptable.
As attention was drawn to the lack of competitiveness of many teams throughout Super Rugby, SANZAAR responded in early April by announcing that they would reduce the 18-team competition back to the previous 15-team league. The result was that South Africa would lose two sides, the Kings and the Cheetahs (who will instead join an expanded Pro14 European competition).
Meanwhile, Australia would also lose a side, which has recently been confirmed as the Western Force, despite being Australia’s equally-most competitive side this season in terms of wins. This is relative to a side such as the Melbourne Rebels, who looked completely out of their depth at the best of times, who will retain their side purely based on their location. Melbourne, a market of 4.75 million people offers room for growth of Super Rugby, whereas Perth, an isolated market of 2 million people does not compare.
Now from an economic standpoint, these moves do make sense. However, balancing the economic potential of Super Rugby, and growing the game in new and already established markets, versus delivering a competitive, Super Rugby competition remains a difficult balancing act for SANZAAR. At this point in time, New Zealand rugby is strong, with four strong sides, and with the Blues slowly rejuvenating toward their former competitive status. Australian rugby remains a mess, with perhaps the dissolution of the Force and the subsequent player shift throughout the remaining Australian sides offering some form of optimism for future improvement.
South African rugby looks poised to benefit the most, with both the Cheetahs and the Kings shifting to the Pro14 competition, South African rugby players are faced with the option to play Super Rugby or Pro14 and I would expect any player with even the slightest bit of ambition to choose Super Rugby. This will see South Africa’s three sides, the Lions, Sharks, and Stormers to improve even further.
This leaves us with the two other international sides, the Argentinian Jaguares, whom in their two seasons of Super Rugby have proven to be a competitive force. They also offer growth in the ever-improving South American market, literally a win-win situation here.
Lastly, the Japan/Singapore-based Sunwolves, who contrastingly, have proven to be particularly underwhelming. Despite, the potential growth towards rugby in the Asian market, the Sunwolves offer very little to the competition, and might be viewed as disposable, particularly as they attracted a relatively low average attendance of 13,000 throughout the 2017 season. It is conceivable, however, that their saving grace remains the fact that the 2019 Rugby World Cup will be hosted in Japan, and it is therefore in the interests of World Rugby that the Sunwolves remain in the Super Rugby competition in the near future.
It is good to see that SANZAAR has addressed the chaos that this once great competition has become. Reducing the number of teams offers the chance to return to a round-robin type format, where each team plays each other once throughout the season. This way the table at the end of the season, and the consequent finals series, simply places the best teams against each other, regardless of their origin.
I understand that the initial intention of this format was to schedule more local matches, therefore getting more fans along to the game, but speaking as a true fan, I would watch my local Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium regardless of the competition. Particularly, I would be further motivated to watch them on the basis that whoever they are playing, whether it is a local derby against the Crusaders or an Australian side such as the Reds – who are a competitive team. Fans don’t want to see blowouts every week, they want to see games where unpredictability is a factor, something that Super Rugby has lacked across the board in recent years.
What are your thoughts on the future of Super Rugby?
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