With SANZAAR set to meet over the next couple of days in London to thrash out a restructure of the Super Rugby competition, let’s consider the hypothesis that there will be one less Australian franchise.
It’s worth contemplating because it’s entirely likely.
Feedback from fans says the 18-team, four-conference system is confusing and constipated – making it hard for administrators and broadcasters to deliver.
It’s pretty clear that five teams in Australia is unsustainable considering the financially precarious position of the majority of the clubs. Recent results on the field haven’t been up to scratch either.
If we tackle this task by deduction, let’s immediately rule out two teams: the Waratahs and Reds are shoo-ins to be retained – the two states are the lifeblood of Australian rugby. No further discussion needed.
The third candidate I’d eliminate is the Western Force.
They’ve been dismal at times on the field, failing to make the Super Rugby finals in their 11-year existence, and perhaps because of that they’ve struggled to stay on their own two feet financially.
However, any broadcast executive and sports marketing expert will tell you their location fits the television schedule nicely, with their Perth home games providing a perfect slot for TV audiences in South Africa and Europe.
Remember, the decisions made in London will be largely motivated by getting the broadcast deal right; that’s where the big bucks are that lay the base for Super Rugby’s viability and in turn provide the biggest drawcard to stop the player drain to Europe and Japan.
Perth is a city of 1.8 million and the Force’s battle with two AFL teams for the hearts and minds of sports fans is formidable but not overwhelming.
Which leaves the Brumbies in Canberra and the Melbourne Rebels.
My proposition is for the ARU not to sharpen the knives to give one of them the chop, but instead get out the welding torch.
Why not a Super Rugby joint venture?
Should we act in the spirit of Federation, when Canberra was chosen as Australia’s capital as a geographical compromise roughly halfway between Sydney and Melbourne?
I make Albury the halfway point between Canberra and Melbourne. The Albury Steamers Rugby Club seem to be well established and they call their home ground Murrayfield.
Alright that’s not going to work; let’s move on.
I’d suggest Canberra being the dominant partner in the new joint venture, with three of their eight home games to be played in Melbourne.
Canberra’s upside is that it’s a proven rugby-loving city with a population of 395,000. That’s significantly more than the successful New Zealand franchises of the Highlanders, based in Dunedin, and the Chiefs based in Hamilton. The key difference is those Kiwi teams effectively have a free hit with fans, while the Brumbies face stiff competition with the Canberra Raiders in the NRL.
Nonetheless, Canberra has proven when the Brumbies are going well they can fill the 25,000 capacity of GIO Stadium.
Canberra have bolted-on rugby union fans and that makes them a precious commodity. South Sydney’s eviction from the NRL in 2000 and 2001 proved it’s highly fraught to alienate diehard fans, or you run the risk that they’ll be lost to the game. The ARU wouldn’t be keen to rip the Brumbies out of Canberra, despite their financial strains of recent years.
Twice champions and four-times runners-up, the Brumbies also have an enviable Super Rugby record, and the ACT has produced a steady flow of classy Wallabies such as current Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham, 139-Test George Gregan, Joe Roff and Matt Giteau.
The downside of Canberra is that the money men don’t view them as lucrative enough to advertisers and broadcasters. Melbourne’s population of 4.35 million is the reason those same parties are so keen for rugby to make a dent in the Victorian market.
The reasons for potentially not persisting with the Rebels as a sole entity in Melbourne are well known – the AFL-infatuated city with eight teams has had six seasons to prove they’re worth sticking with, and haven’t delivered.
And the Storm have shown that NRL premierships don’t necessarily translate into adoration from Melburnians. The Mexicans are tough nuts to crack.
Would a three-match stadium deal in Melbourne be worthwhile? Surely the ARU wouldn’t want to let go of any foothold they’ve laid down in Melbourne; they’ve got an academy established and a decent following. Maybe those fans’ interest would fade if the Rebels didn’t remain full-time.
Are joint ventures too poisonous? Or can it work as a compromise and worth the punt?