Why Super Rugby must go back to the future

Clyde Rathbone Columnist

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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.