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The Brumbies, not the cunning Force, must be sacrificed

Scott Fardy during his time at the Brumbies. (AAP Image/Paul Miller)
Roar Guru
27th March, 2017
89
2257 Reads

There is a famous quote pertinent to Australian rugby right now.

“If you don’t sacrifice for what you want, what you want becomes the sacrifice.”

In other words, Australia must sacrifice a team to get what we all want – a stronger and more competitive Australian conference. South Africa must do the same. This philosophy clearly applies to SANZAAR as well.

If SANZAAR truly wants a strong, competitive, marketable, and thus attractive, and yes, fairer competition, say in terms of who has “genuinely earned the right” to get home finals, then they need to make both team and rule sacrifices.

It is understood – as we all know – they may have done exactly this in their most recent meeting.

But this apparently comes with the potential for vetoes to the changes by the relevant TV networks who were notable for not being represented at the SANZAAR meetings in Ireland.

The simple fact is however that it is time for them to play fair and not be pigheaded for the good of the integrity of the competition which for goodness sake, surely comes first.

If Australia doesn’t make the sacrifice of dropping a side, it will be the slow death of union here because it will sacrifice its ability to produce “consistently competitive” franchises when you had the chance – and that chance is right here and sure as hell – right now!

Australian Super Rugby captains

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The player who lags soon is no longer in clear view on the sporting map, and the ARU, together with their SANZAAR partners, have lingered too long already. And there is little place for sentimentality in business and when the stakes are so high.

One Australian, and at least one (the word is it will be two) South African team must go – that is the bottom line.

For several reasonably rational reasons, the Sunwolves and the Jaguares should and will stay.

It is true, that together with the hapless Kings, the Sunwolves are the competition’s easy beats. So much so that both sides make the bonus point games in the Roar Tipping a bit of a given.

When the upset comes, people will then claim “see, they can cause an upset.” But sorry guys, the exception doesn’t make the rule. Perhaps, in its own way, this says plenty about the current state of the Super Competition.

And yet I support the inclusion of the Sunwolves.

In the Sout African Conference, it is the Kings who must be first to go, if for no other reason than the fact that South Africa made a song and dance routine about how they were shafted for not being a part of the competition.

The other partners in SANZAAR buckled, due in large part to the financial clout the South African union had at that time, especially their networks and the TV dollars.

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They still do have financial clout, but not as much as they once did or will in the future.

South Africa, and the Kings themselves, have not put their money where their mouth is in terms of their claim that they had the depth of talent to support six genuinely competitive sides.

In short – they haven’t delivered.

They have had enough time to do so, and crowds at Kings games on too many occasions, look like a cricket match between Ireland and Afghanistan played in Greenland.

That is what happens when you play like paupers instead of Kings most the time. Yes, I know, they almost caused an upset last weekend.

Southern Kings Super Rugby Rugby Union 2016

The Kings also are a team that is hardly going to further the spread of the already well-entrenched gospel of “rugby as a great game” in that nation, and certainly not in the way the Jaguares and Sunwolves might in their respective territories.

Yes, they have suffered from the European player drain – what I like to call the EPD factor.

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Yet juxtapose this with New Zealand, also hit with EPD in recent times, and we find that so far, they seem to have the rugby factory of up and coming skilled players to cover the holes left behind – so far!

Just look at the Crusaders this season. Suffering from the retirement of very big name players in recent times, the EPD, and early injuries to star All Blacks like Israel Dagg, and pre-season to Kieran Read, they have still beaten every side they have played against.

Three of those sides were Australian: Brumbies, Reds, and the Force.

The first two failed to hold on to big leads, and the last eventually got hammered. And this is a side that traditionally is a slow starter even when they had players of the ilk of Dan Carter and Ritchie McCaw on board.

This begs the question “Are Australian sides stagnating while kiwi sides and their players seem to be always moving forward?”

To be fair, South African sides like the Stormers, Sharks, and even Cheetahs seem to have a new zing about them this season as well. I am expecting the Boks to be better this season – providing their coach is as well.

In Australia, it is hard to keep moving forward however, when you don’t really have the player depth, and the talent you do have is spread over five franchises – you are now, more than ever, being continually hit by the EPD, you lack genuine world class coaches, and from the top down in many cases.

To top it off, the ARU with national coach approval, if not encouragement pre-2015 World Cup, decides to create a rule that virtually encourages players to be lured by the EPD after 60 Test matches.

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These days, with up to 13-14 Tests a season – 10 come in the June window, Bledisloe, and Rugby Championship even before the end of season tour – that barring a run of injuries, this can be achieved by a regular 1-23 Wallaby player after just six years.

This means that very good players bringing plenty to franchises can be sacrificed by the EPD at 26-27 years old – when players are reaching the peak of their rugby powers.

Is it just a coincidence that the two nations that have strict rules that forfeit a player being picked for national duties if they are playing anywhere at all overseas just so happen to currently be the No.1 and No.2 sides in the world?

England has an advantage with this policy of course as their players are already playing for local cashed-up European clubs – not as much pressure from the EPD cash, except from France.

Though there are clearly other factors involved, should we not ask: “Is the demise of both the Springboks and Wallaby rugby’s number of winning performances in very recent times, in some way due to these short sighted and meek policies in the face of EPD pressure?”

We might also ask: “Is the EDP problem being compounded by the disillusionment of players that stay loyal and remain at home, only to then leave because a returning player takes a spot they might have had?”

South African rugby has clearly had to deal with, at times, the debilitating, and often counterproductive, race quotas which by now surely must have proved their endless point. I often wonder if the racial selection policies is one of the reasons some young South African players have become easier pickings for the EPD?

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Thankfully some of the issues are now being addressed, though not all.

Playing for franchises that take two steps backward for each one they take forward cannot be helping the overall situation either.

On that note, is playing for franchises that you know will mostly lose in any given season, and virtually have only the smallest of chances of playing finals footy, let alone take a championship, now becoming a catalyst for the future of Australian rugby being lured overseas?

Let’s face it, no player with serious career ambitions wants to forever play in franchise that never makes the finals year after year, and where the only light at the end of the tunnel seems to be a change of scenery for bigger bucks.

Dane Haylett-Petty of the Force

At least we are seeing – well hopefully – some badly needed changes in the Super Competition, one that should make the Australian franchises more competitive if the local TV networks play ball.

One suspects that if the competition is to be reduced to a more manageable and competitive fifteen sides with two being dropped from South Africa then the other side that may be vulnerable is the Cheetahs. I doubt very much that the Bulls will be on the chopping block.

In Australia, the Brumbies are in big financial trouble and Canberra does not have the population to grow much bigger in terms of audience ratings.

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Melbourne, with a reasonably large combined ex-pat kiwi, NSW and Queensland population, and its legendary sporting passion has room to move – Western Australia has a decent size ex-pat South African population and a sporting market that is not yet completely saturated – and another team in Sydney could also make a lot of sense if that is the way the ARU, in conjunction with SANZAAR, decides to go.

The Force do however need to start being consistently more competitive. Yet have they pulled a master stroke offering shares in the club to fans?

Telling fans your club is going is one thing for the ARU – telling shareholders who are fans is quite another and the Force management would know this.

Or have senior board members got inside word it’s not their side on the chopping block and made moves to secure a stronger more inclusive deal for fans?

After all, it is a bit rich offering shares without confirming with the ARU that your franchise is safe which makes me believe they indeed are. Whatever the reason, it is a smarter move than people may think in these volatile times for Australian rugby, if not a risk for potential investors perhaps.

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In brief, Victoria, WA, and possibly Sydney with a second side, all have vastly superior populations with more audience and fan potential long term.

Be under no illusions – financial woes, like ones the Brumbies have right now, can destroy even a club with pedigree and especially when an expansion policy is heavy on the agenda.

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Just ask Fitzroy AFL club when they were forced to merge with Brisbane, playing their last match in 1996. After the Brisbane-Fitzroy merger, Port Adelaide joined the league in 1997 as part of the AFL’s national expansion policies. They had already dumped the VFL as the premier competition’s title.

There was hoopla about both changes at the time. Now, pretty much no one gives a toss. People move on because nothing is bigger than the game nor more important than the progression of the game itself with the proviso that it does not become unrecognisable in its sporting context, loses its integrity as a competition and contest, appeal, or any combination of these.

Super Rugby has unfortunately reached some of these points. Sacrifice for expansion and/or for a competition’s integrity has to be made in almost all sports at some point in their ongoing histories and usually more than once.

But the Sunwolves and Jaguares must stay.

The Sunwolves are in a market that is ripe for the picking. Baseball and football have long been established there. Rugby is just beginning to gain some ground, and the 2019 World Cup, to be held in Japan, should pay huge dividends for the Super Competition and the game there.

The Brave Blossoms, Eddie Jones inspired victory over traditional giants the Springboks at the 2015 World Cup, gave Japanese rugby a serious credibility injection and rightly so. It is arguably the greatest upset in world cup history.

Crowd numbers to Sunwloves home games are often way above what you would expect for a side that is struggling to be competitive. But the Japanese culture loves a warrior-type battle, and the huge popularity of traditional sports like Sumo Wrestling tells you they understand and love a good physical battle when they see one.

If promoted well, rugby union has the long-term power to fill a gap in the Japanese cultural sporting market and that spells more dollars for SANZAAR and they recognise this.

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The Sunwolves' captain Shota Horie

This season, the Jaguares are virtually the Argentinian side (23 internationals on show in their win over the Lions) and the results are showing big time. Furthermore, the Pumas were one of the four best sides in 2015 World Cup.

As a rugby nation, they have more than earned the right to have a side in the Southern Hemisphere’s premier competition – period.

With many of their best football players playing in Europe, rugby may have some good marketing approaches to take as well by way of their advertising.

The Pacific Nations have earned the right to be represented at Super level as well just quietly, but that’s for another debate.

New Zealand should not have to drop a side. Some Roarers think this is unfair but it is not for several reasons.

Since its inception, all five New Zealand sides have won the Championship and all have made the finals more than once.

Dane Coles of the Hurricanes

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Only three Australian sides have won the Championship: the Brumbies (twice in 2001 and 2004), and Reds (2011), Waratahs (2014) and of the six South African sides only the Bulls have ever become champions, but they did it three times, 2007-09-10.

In the Super Rugby competitions first 10 years, 1996-2005 New Zealand sides dominated winning 8 times, with the Brumbies taking their only two titles in that period, the Crusaders and Blues winning five and three respectively.

It wasn’t until 2007 that a South African side, the Bulls, even won a title, in a period where they had one of the best Bulls sides ever, taking the title three times over a four-year period in 2007-09-10.

They are still the only South African franchise to take out the title yet boast, and indeed, insist on having six teams in an already convoluted and weakened competition.

There is daylight between New Zealand and the rest in terms of teams represented in the finals over the Super Rugby’s 21-year history.

Only once has the New Zealand conference not been represented in the finals, in 2001. No representation of an Australian side in the final has happened three times, 1998, 2007, 2009 and South Africa twice, back-to-back in 2002 and 2003, which caused a bit of an uproar in the corridors of South African rugby at the time.

Before the conference system took over in 2011, guaranteeing at least one finals place to each conference, New Zealand sides were represented in the finals 29 times, South Africa 15 times and Australia 13 times.

After the implementation of the Conference System in 2011, that unfairly gives home finals to conference winners regardless of where they sit on points, New Zealand still dominate the finals representation.

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New Zealand sides have made the final 16 times, South Africa 11 times, Australia 10 times. This means a New Zealand side has made the finals 45 times since 1996, South Arica 26, Australia 24.

Don’t worry, I am sure certain Roarers are rushing off to see if I made mistake in my figures.

But there is also a bigger picture here which is the undeniable pulling power of the brand of New Zealand rugby championed by the All Blacks, one that filters into Super Rugby and across the global rugby fanbase.

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Even in Australia, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald a couple of weeks ago, New Zealand derbies get better ratings than Australian derbies. This is probably due in part to over 600,000 (according to the 2013 census – no doubt more now) ex-pat kiwis living in Australia.

Fox Sports and the relative Rugby newspapers in Australia are well aware that New Zealand fans living in Australia are a big chunk of their rugby union audience. They would be dumb not to be.

Recently the New Zealand Herald reported that Sky TV in the UK approached New Zealand Rugby Union to see if they could get more New Zealand rugby derbies into the Super Rugby program because they are the highest rating games of the Super Rugby programming in the UK with local fans.

The New Zealand Rugby Union were apparently reluctant to play ball due to All Black commitments and an already heavy schedule.

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Of course, Sky would pay more money for the broadcast rights if this happened, but it would require a lot of rejigging of an already confusing Super Rugby format.

For all these reasons above, New Zealand will not be dropping a side, and based on their record alone, nor should they have to.

These are some of the rumoured changes so far:

1 – Three conferences not four.
2 – The system returns to a round robin contest with only 15 sides.
3 – To make this happen, South Africa drops two sides, and Australia one.
4 – The Jaguares remain in the South African conference.
5 – The Sunwolves enter the Australian conference.
6 – Sides that get “home finals” will be those who have earned them on the points table, which puts some integrity back into the finals.
7 – Winners of each conference however are still guaranteed a finals place.

Like I say, these are some of the reported changes, but are not confirmed.

What we all need now is official confirmation of any changes in 2019, and the sooner the better for everyone.

One suspects that the teams who are dropped will be called “merging sides” in the PR spin that they will put on it, to soften the blow like they AFL did with Fitzroy “merging” with the Brisbane Lions – 2000 kilometres away no less.

I bet that made “merging” sense for Fitzroy fans!

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The problem is, the various financial partners who have a stake in the game – will they play ball or just create another mess to serve their own interests?

We would all like to know, SANZAAR, and without any more delays, thanks.

And please, do not delay it through fear that the dropped clubs and their fans will throw tantrums on social media or teams might protest in the current season – that cannot be avoided, so put us all out of our misery.

Let’s face it, some people beyond SANZAAR representatives perhaps already know. Thus, things have been filtered through the media to break the ice with the bad news for some fans and clubs.

I mean, Force shares anyone? Comes with a guarantee the franchise is safe – I swear it mate! Shhh… nobody knows anything for sure, got it?