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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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Popular article! 4,540 reads

    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)

    • March 21st 2017 @ 6:19am
      Tyrone said | March 21st 2017 @ 6:19am | ! Report

      It’s over, this is why emotion and tribalism will always triumph over entertainment. Super Rugby never gave people something they could care about.

      Comment from The Roar’s iPhone app.

      • March 21st 2017 @ 9:26am
        col in paradise said | March 21st 2017 @ 9:26am | ! Report

        I agree with the above..and Super Rugby expansion and the confising conference system (I do not watch US sports) is where we lost the passion of rivalries…back in the Super 12 days and Super 14 we had the Intense rivalry between the 3 original Australian teams and great crowd we also had the rivalries like Brumbies V Crusaders, Tah v NZ etc…go back to that and it may re capture that team passion and tribalism…chopping changing adding you dilute it….the base is your asset don’t destroy removing the Brumbies will I think add to the impending death of RU in this country..they are a great club – the bets performing OZ team and a great brand that is known across the codes…and here these idiots think they can chop or merge them and not loose more of the fan base..clowns…rather a strong local NRC then where it looks like heading and build you supporter base around those “provincial teams”…..

        • March 21st 2017 @ 12:34pm
          ScrumJunkie said | March 21st 2017 @ 12:34pm | ! Report


          • Roar Rookie

            March 21st 2017 @ 7:39pm
            piru said | March 21st 2017 @ 7:39pm | ! Report

            Ironic as it’s the very conference and division system of the NFL that creates such intense rivalries

            • Roar Guru

              March 21st 2017 @ 7:42pm
              sheek said | March 21st 2017 @ 7:42pm | ! Report

              Yeah, that’s because the NFL conferences & divisions are within one country.

              Did anyone think of that difference with super rugby…..?

              • Roar Guru

                March 22nd 2017 @ 8:37am
                Train Without A Station said | March 22nd 2017 @ 8:37am | ! Report

                Kind of like how the Australian and NZ conferences are confined to one country?

    • March 21st 2017 @ 6:48am
      DavSA said | March 21st 2017 @ 6:48am | ! Report

      I have said it often enough. In any venture growth at all costs is destructive and irresponsible. What we have is MBA graduates applying business theories to a sport with deeply entrenched cultural roots. They are simply applying numbers game to something they have no understanding of. Let real rugby folk run rugby . People like Clyde who makes more sense in 100 words than 100 sanzaar conferences will…..but that won’t happen will it.

    • March 21st 2017 @ 7:19am
      Lesterlike said | March 21st 2017 @ 7:19am | ! Report

      The only thing Super Rugby must do, is die.

    • Roar Guru

      March 21st 2017 @ 7:32am
      RobC said | March 21st 2017 @ 7:32am | ! Report

      Thanks Clyde

      I believe the Brums is the only Aus SR team that hasn’t been financially aided (Reds) or owned by ARU (Tahs, Rebs, Force)

    • March 21st 2017 @ 7:37am
      AGO74 said | March 21st 2017 @ 7:37am | ! Report

      Rugby has become like cricket in that it has become a year round sport with only 1 or 2 truly meaningful events every few years to get the non hardcore fan in (ashes for cricket, World Cup for rugby). The oversupply as Clyde refers to means that you just switch off in terms of even following results let alone watching the games. The annual northern and Southern Hemisphere tours by respective countries are nothing more than glorified soccer friendlies given there is no rhyme or reason to how or when these games are played.

      Sadly the quality of Aussie rugby is that low that even the Bledisloe is slowly becoming irrelevant given the non competitiveness of it. I got a ticket to last years game at anz stadium and apart from the odd “all blicks” chant from the kiwis the atmosphere was non existent. That night summed up the current state of Australian rugby.

      So Clyde is correct in one sense that less is more. It’s just too much. Unless you are hardcore which lets face it there aren’t too many off people have switched off. And to address my 2nd paragraph I think Aussie rugby would be best served in competing in a trans Tasman comp only – with 3 teams max. Given the complexities of sanzar, tv contracts etc that won’t happen.

      • Roar Guru

        March 21st 2017 @ 8:13am
        Sam Taulelei said | March 21st 2017 @ 8:13am | ! Report

        I understand Clydes argument that less is more but it’s too simplistic and doesn’t explain the growth of the sport in Europe that features longer seasons, more games and more competitions for fans to follow.

        • March 21st 2017 @ 1:53pm
          AGO74 said | March 21st 2017 @ 1:53pm | ! Report

          What’s applicable in Australia may not be applicable in Europe and vice versa.

        • Roar Guru

          March 21st 2017 @ 3:42pm
          Rob na Champassak said | March 21st 2017 @ 3:42pm | ! Report

          They have the players there to support more competition, though. And guess where those players are coming from.

    • Roar Guru

      March 21st 2017 @ 7:46am
      sheek said | March 21st 2017 @ 7:46am | ! Report

      Agreed Clyde,

      The de beers Diamond company principle – “artificial scarcity”. Less is indeed more. Works perfectly for them.

      But you just can’t tell folks that these days, they’re not listening, the Wallabies play 14-15 tests per annum.

      Ho hum…..

      • March 21st 2017 @ 9:28am
        col in paradise said | March 21st 2017 @ 9:28am | ! Report

        yep and loose ten of them !!!!

      • Roar Guru

        March 21st 2017 @ 12:30pm
        Fionn said | March 21st 2017 @ 12:30pm | ! Report

        As if you aren’t excited for the 2016 June series, Sheek! Don’t you know we’re going to have to face a Scotland without any of their best players! It’ll be great.

      • March 21st 2017 @ 2:54pm
        Hello Everybody. said | March 21st 2017 @ 2:54pm | ! Report

        And the money the Wallabies get funds rugby in Aus.

        So what they need to do is stop that, fund grassroots….go broke….lose the pro game in Aus…..and then everyone will stop complaining.

        The ARU are doing the right things.

        They have a low cost national comp.
        They are retreating and consolidating.
        They are funding growth areas.
        They are looking after money flow.
        They are doing what needs to be done.

        Anyone who suggests the ARU are clueless is merely venting frustration or fail to understand the difficulties faced.

        As for Super Rugby.
        Its in trouble.

        It faces so many difficulties that I cant see it remaining.

        I can see a NZ and Aus comp rising from the ashes but Europe will be the big fish.

        NZ will hold out selecting from overseas for another 10 years but, with millions of dollars per season being offered, eventually NZ will be forced to select from Europe imo.

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