The Roar
The Roar


Super Rugby's final frontiers: Kings, Adelaide, Auckland

Roar Guru
28th February, 2012
3961 Reads

The purpose of this article is to suggest a way to resolve the current impasse within SANZAR over the South African desire to field a sixth Super Rugby team, while keeping the five they currently possess.

We recently learned that South Africa refuses to contemplate removing one of their existing teams in order to clear space for the Southern Kings: “Their latest ploy is for officials from several provinces, including the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Kings, to accompany South African Rugby Union delegates to Australia and New Zealand next month to lobby for another team.”

The response of the ARU and NZRU so far has been unimaginative. Instead of considering that they might get something for their own benefit in exchange for allowing South Africa their sixth team, a wall of bullish refusal has been put up, perhaps out of a desire for revenge over the last decision on a Super team going to arbitration.

I propose John O’Neill and Steve Tew bring in the South African delegates, cast sweet words upon them and make clear that nothing could be further from their hearts that the idea of fueling discord within SANZAR or denying any of its members what desires they may harbour. But in order for one back to be scratched another must receive some favour. They should ask for two objects of exchange in return:

1). A new team each for themselves.
2). Moving the Currie Cup.

O’Neill and Tew are in an extremely strong bargaining position. South Africa are under tremendous political pressure to add the Southern Kings and are legally contracted to carry out their part of the current broadcasting deal. They have no room to move. They can simply be told to accept everything or you don’t get your team.

To deal briefly with point two first. Moving the Currie Cup would create room for more fixtures, a larger and more impressive scale of competition, and crucially more revenue. No one would suggest altering or reducing the Currie Cup, but simply shifting it a little.

The addition of a team each in Australia and New Zealand would have huge benefits for the playing numbers and market penetration of the game. I have chosen two areas which in different ways represent the last major unconquered territory in each country, the major untapped source of players and spectators: the final frontiers.


a). Adelaide and Southern Australia.

With a population of 1.7 million, it’s extraordinary that there is no Super team in Southern Australia. The ARU has chosen to spread rugby across the country, opening virgin markets in Perth and Melbourne, instead of extra teams in the heartlands of New South Wales and Queensland.

The idea behind this is that with less competition from a similar sport, the NRL, rugby can add huge new sectors to its profile. What’s more, rugby travels better in expansionist projects than league or the AFL. The latter are largely based on intense parochial rivalries within states, not national-level rivalry between big cities or states.

So there is little fascination in a new area such as Melbourne for the local differences between one area of New South Wales and another, in which they are thrust with league expansion, but the competition between Brisbane and Perth is one at a national level and into which they can fit.

Super Rugby has, in many ways to its detriment, eschewed local, parochial interests in favour of a national and international identity. This is beset with weaknesses, but a strength is that it means new national identities can be seemlessly and coherently interwoven into the fabric.

New states instantly feel they are part of something that makes sense, and the sudden glamour of playing other big cities within the same country and internationally is enchanting. So why if Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne have teams, does the only remaining major market not?

What’s more, with no competition from the NRL, Adelaide is the sitting duck to end all sitting ducks. Rugby can simply walk in and take it and should do so now, before the NRL starts getting ideas in its head.


2). South Auckland.

Rugby is the dominant sport in New Zealand and theoretically has access to every potential player, thereby maximising the use of its talent to make the strongest All Black line-up possible. Except there is one area where much of the talent is sealed off from them: South Auckland.

Here league is powerful enough to frustrate the complete and perfect conquest of New Zealand by rugby. What’s more league has designs on New Zealand’s glorious playing reserves as a whole, and with a strong foothold in South Auckland as well as vast riches when the huge TV deal comes to fruition, plans to plunder the All Black youth at will.

This is made easier because of the bizarre decision of the NZRU to only field one team in Auckland. Auckland’s population is approaching one and a half million, and yet has only one Super team, while 209,000 in Otago are supposed to furnish enough support for a team.

Divided in three, between the Blues, South Auckland and North Harbour, there would be almost half a million supporters per team, and each already has an identity. Vast heartland cities such as Auckland and Sydney rarely succeed with one team. Not only do they fail to develop their playing resources with only 30 squad places, but expectations are too high.

More importantly though, the greatest rivalries of all are not inter-city but intra-city, and in metropolises what excites most is local rivalries within the city (the virtue of Super Rugby is that it can accomodate intra-city, inter-city and international intercity rivalries!).

Ideally both cities should be split in three. Three teams of 30 squad places, their scouts trained on South Auckland will bring significant new stocks of players to New Zealand who now go to league. For the meantime two objectives can be achieved in one single act: the acquisition of the last players unavailable to rugby, and heading off the advances of league.


Indeed, a South Auckland team could be the most significant event domestically within New Zealand rugby for the foreseeable future.

It is sometimes said that there are not enough players in Australia for more Super teams. This is based on the false definition of Super Rugby engendered at its birth: when there were only a small number of teams, every player had to be Australian, or from New Zealand or South Africa in their cases, so that there were enough opportunities to play elite rugby.

The definition of a Super team was that each player was local. Now there are more teams that is no longer the case and other priorities have emerged, and yet the idea that all the players must be local miraculously persists. In order to expand into a new market, develop the game and eventually discover new players, a team needs to exist.

For this team to exist there need to be players to fill it, until the game grows and local, say Melburnian or Perthian players replace them: it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether the players in these teams in the early years are from Australia or Timbucktoo, or come from playing rugby or croquet. What matters above all is that there is a team.

So using foreign imports, NRL converts and Pacific Island talent, it would be easy to fill another Australian team, unlimited numbers in fact. New Zealand has endless players and so could comfortably fill its own team without resorting to these expedients.

Players are also hoarded unnecessarily in one or two franchises in each conference: some of these could be redistributed to the new teams (and indeed the existing ones. The permission given to some teams to hog all the talent is behind the unnecessarily uneven strength of different Super teams).

Perhaps the Reds or Crusaders could be allowed to keep 24-26 of their squads and the remainder would go to the new teams. An intriguing suggestion is that given the huge Pacific Island population of South Auckland, the team could be largely based around Pacific Island players, not least because this would considerably boost the fan base (the same argument could be rightly made for Western Sydney, for whom there should also be a team).


Single private owners should be encouraged to own these teams. Private equity raises little money; multi-millionaire tycoons have no interest in simply investing in a team on the obscure chance of some financial return. What they really wish to do is make it their personal toy and project, and as seen in Europe, they are willing to plough millions into this toy.

Indeed, by not allowing single private owners, SANZAR loses millions every year. If the salary cap only applied to players within the system, and anyone brought from outside was exempt, these tycoons would be able to fill up their teams entirely from league and abroad.

Australia and New Zealand do not cover every major heartland or provide enough teams to develop the game properly, and both should aim to bring the number up to eight each before 2016, when expansion will move into Japan, the U.S. and Argentina which will need full concentration.

Adelaide, Western Sydney and the Gold Coast are critical for Australian rugby, doubling the number of teams in the two big heartlands and adding the final large untapped market. Two more teams in Auckland would turn it into a cauldron of domestic rivalry while another could easily be added in Bay of Plenty, with almost 300,000 inhabitants, or indeed elsewhere.

These teams can be filled with players from any corner or code of the earth: the important thing is that the teams exist. With this markets are developed and maximised, playing numbers soar, the financial value of the game rockets and so the next broadcasting deal will be equivalently larger.

A reason for not adding further teams has been that SANZAR is currently in the middle of a broadcasting deal. This is no reason at all: SANZAR can simply call up the broadcaster and ask if they would mind further teams being added.

No broadcasters in his right mind would turn down the inclusion of new markets, especially large ones. It’s said that this would mean there was less money to spread around the greater number of teams, but there are a number of ways around this:


a). The broadcast deal could be amended with more money provided, as contracts can be amended midway if both parties are willing: additional markets and a longer season with the moved Currie Cup would be very persuasive to broadcasters.

b). Rich private owners of the new teams can be told they must cover this money themselves c) SANZAR simply trumps up the money, counting it as a worthwhile investment.

The addition of a team each would leave each country in an immeasurably stronger position, so O’Neill and Tew should butter up the South African delegates, arrange a deal, call the broadcasters, and then everything the future of Super Rugby will be far brighter.