Why Super Rugby must go back to the future

Clyde Rathbone Columnist

By Clyde Rathbone, Clyde Rathbone is a Roar Expert

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    As the first rumblings of a looming Super Rugby restructure emerged, it became increasingly clear that professional rugby had entered a new and especially perilous phase.

    Super Rugby has undergone a host of iterations since it first appeared as a ten-team tournament back in 1993.

    SANZAR’s formation in 1996 saw the expansion to 12 teams, with that format lasting a decade before the introduction of additional teams, and, eventually, the conference model that exists today.

    These changes have been driven by a desire to expand rugby’s reach and secure its future in the Southern Hemisphere. For many years Super Rugby appeared to be a near-perfect convergence of fan interest, player burnout and economic success.

    Those days are gone.

    Never has this been more evident than during the Brumbies’ trouncing of the Waratahs on Saturday. Henry Speight scored a stunning try that brought the meagre crowd out of its slumber, but those moments were few and far between, and I was forced to wonder how a local derby so passionately contested in years gone by had regressed into just another game.

    Henry Speight

    French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery is quoted as having said, “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

    ‘Less is more’ is a principle that has been largely ignored by rugby’s power brokers, bent on force feeding ‘more’ into an already bloated calendar. Fed an endless diet of new teams and complexity, rugby has developed a chronic oversupply problem – the resulting waning interest has only been met with more of the same. More has become boring, and boredom equals death in the entertainment industry.

    The usual noises about ‘hard economic decisions’ are already being trotted out. Culling the Brumbies, Australia’s most successful Super Rugby team, or forcing them into a merger with a Melbourne team seems ridiculous. But these are strange times indeed and, as evidenced by a series of inept leaks and conflicting statements during the past week, the leadership required to turn things around seems sadly missing from the ARU and SANZAAR.

    Perhaps the only way to invigorate Super Rugby is to buck the trend and usher in the one thing that makes the boardroom suits squirm in their seats: scarcity.

    During the years under which South African rugby was isolated from the rest of the world, the Currie Cup became the only way for local fans and players to engage with the game. This resulted in huge interest, massive crowds, and matches that often mimicked Test match intensity.

    I remember what it was like to play at a packed out Bruce Stadium in Canberra every weekend. In those days, Super Rugby ran over three-and-a-half months. Every team played one another and the competition acted as an action-packed precursor to the Test window.

    Only by prioritising quality ahead of quantity can Super Rugby in Australia return to those days.

    Clyde Rathbone
    Clyde Rathbone

    Former Wallaby & Brumby Clyde Rathbone retired from rugby in 2014. Clyde is a writer, speaker and technology startup founder. A Roar columnist since 2012, you can follow Clyde via his Twitter page.

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    The Crowd Says (91)

    • Roar Guru

      March 21st 2017 @ 4:32am
      biltongbek said | March 21st 2017 @ 4:32am | ! Report

      Yup, agree

      • March 21st 2017 @ 11:47pm
        markie362 said | March 21st 2017 @ 11:47pm | ! Report

        Yea but dont forget clyde that whn the boks came out of isolation they got flogged by oz and nz.the teams may have been even but it was a low standard

    • Roar Guru

      March 21st 2017 @ 4:44am
      Harry Jones said | March 21st 2017 @ 4:44am | ! Report

      The hardcore fan (us) will always go watch rugby, for the game.

      The casual-fickle fan goes to see stars.

      So many stars leave SANZAAR comps to go North.

      Until most of the stars return, there’ll be attendance weakness.

      • March 21st 2017 @ 5:12am
        AndyS said | March 21st 2017 @ 5:12am | ! Report

        Indeed Harry. We can absolutely turn the clock back to the late ’90s, just as soon as we get everyone involved to do the same including the European clubs, the NRL, the AFL, etc…

      • March 21st 2017 @ 12:28pm
        Pie Thrower said | March 21st 2017 @ 12:28pm | ! Report


        I’m not sure I agree with you on that. I don’t think it has much to do with the starts not being there. It is all about the product on display. I am a rusted on rugby fan – have played (poorly!) coached and refereed the game. I am a member of the Reds and my local rugby club. My son plays and I currently coach his team. I love the game. I consider myself a rusted on fan but I can barely bring myself to watch Super Rugby. Unfortunately, at the moment, it is rubbish – and I don’t think it is due to the lack of stars. The complex unwieldy structure and non-descript teams are a turn off and the standard is poor – that, I believe is due to the talent being spread too thinly – not because of a lack of stars.

        I enjoy going and watching local club rugby. Sure some of the skills aren’t as good, but the rugby is better, is more exciting and you can identify with the teams that are playing. There is genuine spirit and, in some cases, hatred of the other teams. That has gone with Super Rugby. I tried to watch a game the other day – can’t even remember who it was – maybe the kings and the jaguares – apart from knowing they are from SA and Argentina – I know nothing of them. There is no passion, no reason for hatred.

        Even local derbies in Oz and NZ are becoming stale –look at the Brumbies v Tahs on the weekend. Stale. QLD v NSW used to be the annual grudge match – barely rates a mention. Auckland v Canterbury used to be huge – same deal.

        There is too much rugby that doesn’t mean anything. Heck – make it more appealing and maybe the Stars might even return?!!?

        • March 21st 2017 @ 5:04pm
          Akari said | March 21st 2017 @ 5:04pm | ! Report

          “Even local derbies in Oz and NZ are becoming stale –look at the Brumbies v Tahs on the weekend. Stale. QLD v NSW used to be the annual grudge match – barely rates a mention. Auckland v Canterbury used to be huge – same deal.”

          Please elaborate Pie T as to why local derbies “are becoming stale”. The Brumbies and Tahs game was nothing much to write home about but the Brumbies still won and I can assure you that we, B supporters, loved the game and win. In contrast, the NZ local derbies were a joy to watch and possibly spoiled by inept officiating (eg, the Crusaders try that wasn’t because the ref asked the AR the wrong question).

          I wondered whether your views might be different if the Reds were winning and leading the Aus conference. I thought the Reds have bought well and leading the conference now. They may still.

          • Roar Guru

            March 21st 2017 @ 5:50pm
            Rabbitz said | March 21st 2017 @ 5:50pm | ! Report

            Well that’s easy.

            The derbies used to be anticipated and were given meaning by their rarity.

            Now that they are a cash cow, and are played week in, and week out, the meaning is diluted. If I can’t watch the game tonight, no matter, there’ll be another in a couple of weeks. Rather than, if I can’t watch the game tonight I’ll have to wait until next year, therefore I’ll make a bigger effort to watch.

            • March 21st 2017 @ 5:53pm
              AndyS said | March 21st 2017 @ 5:53pm | ! Report

              Quite agree. If we want to test the “scarcity” thesis, maybe we should start with the derbies…?

            • March 22nd 2017 @ 12:21pm
              Akari said | March 22nd 2017 @ 12:21pm | ! Report

              But Roarers (ok 99%) are agitating for more local derbies and not less and against the current system where the Brumbies for example meet the ‘hated’ Tahs for one this year. I’m sure the Tahs and supporters would prefer a return match to have another go at the Brumbies this year rather than next.

          • March 21st 2017 @ 5:51pm
            AndyS said | March 21st 2017 @ 5:51pm | ! Report

            I agree Akari. A match is a match, and it is irrelevant what the competition is that it sits within. When my team is playing, I really can’t say I’m giving any thought whatsoever to the conference system.

            Personally, I think the decline in interest is more reflective of the supporters and their willingness to believe what they are told, than it is of the actual rugby on the ground. All these fond memories of how things used to be…funny, I seem to recall that was when the Waratahs were routinely criticised for boring, up the jumper rugby and everyone was routinely being humped by the Crusaders…

      • March 21st 2017 @ 6:19pm
        Tuc Du Nard said | March 21st 2017 @ 6:19pm | ! Report

        Can’t agree more. Talent spread so thin that any bright spot stars turn to beige amongst the too many average players.

        • Roar Guru

          March 21st 2017 @ 6:39pm
          Harry Jones said | March 21st 2017 @ 6:39pm | ! Report

          Guys, the nostalgic argument is flawed bc in the heyday of the Currie Cup, we all knew we were watching the best of the best in SA play the best, for bragging rights.

          It wasn’t the scarcity.

          It was best vs best

          • Roar Guru

            March 21st 2017 @ 6:46pm
            Machooka said | March 21st 2017 @ 6:46pm | ! Report

            Agree Harry… I love being nostalgic but it does little or nothing regards the future!

      • March 22nd 2017 @ 10:26am
        Jokerman said | March 22nd 2017 @ 10:26am | ! Report

        The ones that are in it for the money at the top are partly responsible for its issues. They flog the product like any big business does. More local derbies, more teams, more games. They are unimaginative and just look to always add more. They just want bigger profits, but without much rugby nous and spirit, we come to a divided, unfair comp.

        The old format was fine. NZ have never changed. I always liked the provincial name like Wellington Hurricanes. It gave it more pride then calling it a franchise. They gave in to the smaller unions I think who felt excluded.

        Five NZ teams. Three or four Australia. Three or four SA. One Argie team. One Japan. One island team. Round robin with perhaps two or three teams that don’t play due to the length of a round robin. Then a imaginative finals component. Top 8,5 or 4.

        The tweaks in the super format should have been gradual when it was working so well. One extra team added with a lot of consideration. A slight change in the finals format etc. Not a sudden four conference system that is unfair to a lot of sides. It was corporate greed that did this. Trying to extract more money whilst compromising with team values, fairness, history and fans.

        That all said they can tweek it back into place. They just have to keep it simple!!

    • Roar Guru

      March 21st 2017 @ 5:17am
      Fionn said | March 21st 2017 @ 5:17am | ! Report

      Agree completely, Clyde. Even if we lose more stars up north it would be worth it to escape this turd we currently have.

    • March 21st 2017 @ 5:27am
      Riddler said | March 21st 2017 @ 5:27am | ! Report

      Cheers Clyde for the piece. .

      No easy solutions for oz rugby at the moment.

      Too many vested interests that can’t/won’t give or see other possibilities.

      • March 21st 2017 @ 10:06am
        scottd said | March 21st 2017 @ 10:06am | ! Report

        totally agree Riddler

    • March 21st 2017 @ 5:30am
      DavSA said | March 21st 2017 @ 5:30am | ! Report

      The times they are a changing. I fully agree with your sentiments , but no going back to the Currie Cup glory days , no going back to Superrugby’s either . The lure of the pound is gravitous Harry. Just finished watching UJ vs Wits highlights . The standard was really amazing , so yeah I also just want to watch rugby

    • Roar Guru

      March 21st 2017 @ 6:11am
      Carlos the Argie said | March 21st 2017 @ 6:11am | ! Report

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