The blueprint for Super Rugby expansion?
Are you enjoying the NPC? I’m not. Do you like Super Rugby? I don’t.
I’m not referring to the on field action. In my judgement, the problem is the compromised nature of both competitions. Both competitions are robbed of the elements which, in my view, would make each other more appealing. Super Rugby has all the best players, while the NPC has tradition and ingrained fan identification.
Is there a model out there which appeases SANZAR’s desire for Super Rugby expansion, re-establishes the importance of traditional provincial representation (with all its incumbent geographic and historic associations), works within the fractured nature of the intra-hemisphere global season while at the same time reduces the overall travel workload on players?
The hard truth is that Test rugby is the main source of broadcast revenue for the respective SANZAR unions and so any restructure must attempt to at least work within a calendar that runs for 40 weeks (February/March to November/December), 14 of which are Test Match weekends for Australia and New Zealand due to the third Bledisloe Cup match and the desire to have a revenue shared fourth test in the Northern Hemisphere.
Sounds too hard doesn’t it? Well you’d be correct.
There is no such model that I’ve seen detailed which could accommodate all those differing and sometimes counter-intuitive concerns.
But I believe the following model comes close.
A Super Rugby structure divided into three closed conferences (i.e. no cross conference matches) of eight teams each:
Super Rugby South Africa
Western Province Stromers
Northern Transvaal Bulls
Eastern Province Kings
Free State Cheetahs
Griqualand West Griquas
North West Province Leopards
Super Rugby Australia
Sydney Waratahs (North Harbour)
Sydney Fleet (East and South)
Sydney Rams (Greater West)
Brisbane Reds (North and West of Brisbane River)
Brisbane Colts (South and East of Brisbane River)
Super Rugby New Zealand
Hawkes Bay Magpies
Based on the 2012 calendar, phase one of the season would require 12 weekends (Friday, 2nd March to Sunday, 20th May) for the first 12 rounds of conference play.
Phase two would require five weekends (Friday, 25th May to Sunday 24th June) for three June Test matches and bye weekends on either side of the Test window.
Phase three would require two weekends (Friday 29th June to Sunday 8th July) to complete the final two rounds of conference play.
Phase four would require two weekends (Friday, 13th July to Sunday 2second July) for a conference semi-final and final.
Phase five would require three weekends (Friday 27th July to Sunday, 12th August) for the inter-conference Super Rugby finals, whereby each conference’s finalists qualify for the same six team Super Rugby finals format we currently have.
Phase six would require nine weekends (Friday, 17th August to Sunday, 14th October) for the Rugby Championship – six match weekends and three bye weekends (one bye after the Super Rugby final and one each between the three blocks of two matches).
Phase seven would apply only to Australia and New Zealand and require two weekends (Friday, 19th October to Sunday, 28th October).
Phase eight would require five weekends (Friday, second November to Sunday, 25th November) consisting of a bye week immediately after the third Bledisloe Cup Test and four Northern Hemisphere Tests.
That’s a grand total of a 40 week season (second March to 25th November), which compares favourably to the 2010 season which (for New Zealand) kicked off on 12th February and ended on 28th November.
The content for broadcasters? SANZAR nations would play 34 Test matches. Super Rugby teams would provide 168 regular season matches, nine closed conference finals and five inter-conference finals.
The player workload? This is where it gets tricky.
A New Zealand or Australian player could possibly be required to play 14 rounds of Super Rugby, three June Tests, two conference finals, three inter-conference finals, six Rugby Championship Tests, one Bledisloe Cup Test and four Northern Hemisphere Tests.
That’s 33 matches, but sensible player management can offset such problems.
There would be many advantages to this structure.
A return to centre stage for traditional provincial teams and rivalries (possibly even a meaningful Ranfurly shield programme).
A flexible structure which would allow for the addition of conferences in new markets, without necessarily increasing the travel burden or even placing pressure on the time constraints.
A closed conference structure lessens the pain of spreading the talent, especially in Australia’s case. Weaker Australian teams would not be exposed to stronger New Zealand teams and vice versa. Broadcasters no longer have ‘dead air’ matches (e.g. Lions v Force) which engage neither the crowds nor the TV viewers.
Conversely, there would be a vast increase in local derby matches which attract both crowds and viewership. All 168 regular season matches would be played within each respective conference, massively reducing the travel burden on both the players and finances.
Established brands such as Chiefs and Crusaders can be appropriated by their respective provincial counterparts in order to maintain marketing continuity for broadcasters.
I’m informed that the South African market provides a large share of the value of the current broadcast deal in which Australia and New Zealand share equally. Therefore I would suggest that both of the Tasman conferences remain under the SANZAR umbrella of Super Rugby, as opposed to being independent conferences having to negotiate separate and possibly less lucrative deals.
One main issue has been the provincial versus regional debate, especially in New Zealand.
Will the elevation of only eight provincial unions at the expense of approximately 20 others have an irreversibly detrimental effect? Will the feared ‘urban drift’ cripple those provinces outside of the main centres? That’s a valid debate, which I will not dwell on here.
Do we stand idly by and accept a situation that satisfies few and disenchants many? Or do we share the pain and make a few minor compromises to implement a structure that will strengthen the game in its traditional markets and provide a springboard for further lucrative expansion?
Under the current structure we have many compromises and problems. This proposed structure would be no different in this respect. I’m sure Roarers will come up with a plethora of issues and concerns, and I welcome them in the search for a more perfect union.