The blueprint for a perfect rugby season
Are the Pumas destined to wait forever in the shadows of the big three southern hemisphere teams? (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
Let’s cook up a recipe for the perfect season of rugby. Which one of the following would you most like to see happen?
1. A prominent national domestic tournament for Australia to call its own?
2. The ITM Cup and Currie Cup back on centre stage in New Zealand and South Africa, with all the test stars available?
3. SANZAR’s Super Rugby plans to expand into new markets with new teams and new revenue?
4. Super Rugby franchises to be less diluted than they are now, and more competitive, with far less onerous travel requirements?
What if there was a way to achieve all of these things, without it being absolutely ridiculous?
If I had my way, the following steps would be taken to achieve the perfect season of rugby:
1. Australia would build a national domestic tournament of its own (even if it’s only semi-professional). All three national domestic tournaments in South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia would have a more prominent platform, with all of the Test stars available. Domestic competitions would be played in the August-October window.
This is the time of year when the Australian public ‘come alive’ to ‘footy’ as we move into the finals of the NRL, AFL and club rugby. Traditionally, this is also when the national domestic rugby tournaments are played in South Africa and New Zealand.
I believe that rugby has what it takes to have a cultural presence alongside the NRL and AFL at this time of year. But for this to happen, an ARC (Australian Rugby Championship) is the card that we must have the confidence to play.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not expecting an ARC to compete with the NRL or AFL overnight. But if an ARC ever managed to be telecast on free-to-air on a Friday night and Sunday afternoon during the August-October window, I have no doubt that rugby as a sport would be further embedded in the Australian culture than it is currently.
All it needs is a free-to-air TV station like Channel Ten to see its potential, pick up the ball and run with it!
In 2010, I met a man who used to work for the ARU. He wasn’t a publicly known person, but he happened to be involved in working out the financial side of a potential national domestic rugby competition in Australia.
He was still employed by the ARU when the Australian Rugby Championship (ARC) was launched in 2007, but he left the ARU not long after due to family commitments. The interesting thing was, when I spoke to him in 2010, he was adamant that the ARC would still be up and running today if it had managed to secure a major sponsor and a broadcaster. And that has always stuck with me.
While rugby fans in Australia often discuss the many (small) problems with the ARC, perhaps its biggest problem was that it didn’t start with all the Wallaby stars involved, which I’m sure would have been more enticing to any major sponsor or broadcaster.
2. In order to have a prominent national domestic tournament in the August-October window now, the ‘immovable’ June inbound tests would need to be played in May – a month earlier.
The first Bledisloe Cup game would then be played the week after the last inbound tour match. Then a week off. And then the Rugby Championship would be played in June-July, leaving the August-October window open for a national domestic tournament with all the test stars available.
Moving the June inbound window to May is perhaps a fanciful suggestion in the minds of many people. At the same time, I’m sure we can all remember bigger mountains being moved.
3. With the extra revenue earned from the national domestic tournaments (at least initially in South Africa and New Zealand), Super Rugby could possibly afford to be truncated to fit a March-April window. Remember it’s the Rugby Championship which acts as the cash cow anyway.
But here’s the thing. If Super Rugby were to be played at the start of the year (Mar-Apr), SANZAR would still need 8-9 weeks worth of content to fill it.
What if SANZAR were to only allow four franchises each from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa? You may think that these countries would then send their top teams from the national domestic competitions (Heineken Cup style).
But for an 8-9 week comp, I’m pretty sure that all three nations would still want to use franchises which included all of their best players, while also satisfying broadcasters, sponsors and so on. This is why New Zealand and South Africa moved to franchises in the first place.
However, by allowing only four spots each, it could possibly allow SANZAR to meet its stated aim to expand Super Rugby without diluting the product, or having increased travel expenses.
They could do this by having a truncated tournament, with more conferences of fewer teams each.
To start with, there would be a conference each in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa – all with 4 teams each.
AUS would have state representative teams: the NSW Waratahs, Queensland Reds, ACT Brumbies, and a Combined States team. The Western Force and Melbourne Rebels would continue to play in the new and improved ARC (see below).
New Zealand and South Africa would need to realign their regional franchises with particular provinces, in order to decrease their current volume of franchises.
However, if they wanted to continue with the existing amount of regional franchises, they would need to implement a system of promotion and relegation, like South Africa are about to do anyway.
If a franchise were to be discontinued in New Zealand or South Africa, it must be remembered that the particular area(s) represented by that franchise could still have a team in their own national domestic competition, which would now have a much more prominent platform.
For my perfect season of rugby, there would be another three conferences with four teams each:
A conference in South America made up of three Argentinean teams, plus the top team from the South American Rugby Championship (excluding Argentina).
A conference in Asia made up of two Japanese teams, plus one Hong Kong-based team and one team based somewhere yet to be decided.
A conference in North America consisting of two American teams and two Canadian teams.
In each of the six conferences, all teams would play each other home and away (six games each), with the top team from each conference (six teams total) moving through for crossover quarters. The winner of the AUS conference would play the winner of the Asian conference. The winner of the New Zealand conference would play the winner of the North American conference. The winner of the SA conference would play the winner of the South American conference.
Of the three remaining teams, the team with the best for and against record would get a bye week and move straight through to the final, while the other two teams would play a semi-final to determine the other finalist for the following week (nine weeks total).
Now before people worry about ridiculous amounts of travel, this proposal would actually involve far, far less travel than is currently the case. All of the games within each conference would be meaningful and time-zone friendly. And the product would be top-notch, undiluted rugby with no horrendously lopsided match-ups.
With 24 teams across six conferences and five continents, TV revenue would be Super!
4. My perfect rugby season in Australia, and the Southern Hemisphere in general, would therefore look like this:
March-April – Super Rugby.
This allows the year to kick off with a bang! In Australia, each of the four Super Rugby teams would also have either a second XV or an under-20/21 team playing as curtain raisers without any of the logistical difficulties currently blocking this from happening. This would allow the Australian under-20 players to better prepare for the Junior World Championship. Other countries would undoubtedly think about doing something similar.
May – Three inbound tour games, plus the first of 3 Bledisloe Cup matches.
The Junior World Championship would also be played in May instead of June.
June-July – The Rugby Championship.
The Pacific Nations Cup involving Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Japan, USA, and Canada, would also be played during this time. In Australia, a national sevens tournament would also be played concurrently to the Rugby Championship.
The eight ARC teams (see below) would be entered. It would be made for TV (four games in two hours) and played on Friday nights over eight weeks, with a carnival each week at a different home ground of one of the eight teams involved.
August-October – The ARC, ITM Cup, and Currie Cup.
The equivalent could also be played in Argentina and other countries.
In Australia, the ARC would need to be completely focused on having the right structure, with carefully chosen teams, while also being financially viable.
To start with, I would have two pools of four teams each. Every team would play home and away matches against the other teams in their pool (six games each). The top two teams from each pool would move through for crossover semi-finals and a final (eight weeks total)
These would be the areas (though not necessarily the names) that I would choose for the ARC teams:
Sydney North Harbour
Sydney South Harbour
While Pool B would involve plane travel, and Pool A would only require bus travel, the overall costs would be shared between all teams, thus reducing the travel expenses of the old ARC.
As the competition stabilised, the format could be changed so that every team played all of the others. New teams could possibly be added from the Gold Coast, Central Coast, Adelaide and so on.
With real financial stability in the future it could also be possible for each ARC team to have a second XV or an under-20/21 side to play as a curtain-raiser in their own competition.
The final of the ARC would be on the weekend after the NRL grand final in early October. Then there would be a week off, after which there would be a well-promoted Possibles versus Probables match to select the Wallabies to tour Europe in November.
October – Possibles versus Probables in Australia. North Island versus South Island in NZ.
The Possibles versus Probables match in Australia would be used to pick deserving, in-form players for the Wallabies’ end of year European tour. This game would be spaced neatly between the ARC final and the end of year European tour, providing enough time for player-recovery and ample media attention.
November – End of Year Tour of Europe (four countries).
Australia would attempt to complete a Grand-slam of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales every four years.
And there you have it! In my mind, this proposal would make for an interesting, exciting season, with wall-to-wall rugby, plenty on offer, and no boring bits.
If a player in Australia were to play in every game on offer, including every final and every Test match, they would play a maximum of 31-32 games in a season – nine Super Rugby games, 13-14 international Tests, eight ARC games, and one Possibles versus Probables game.
Now, about moving those inbounds to May…
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