2017 was a year that, for rugby fans in the southern hemisphere, made Queen Elizabeth’s 1992 ‘Annus Horribilis’ or Barnaby Joyce’s last few months seem like a walk in the park.
It only took three rounds of Super Rugby to confirm to SANZAAR what many fans had been telling them for some time; that their once revered Super Rugby competition was killing the game.
A crisis meeting was hastily arranged in the UK, others followed, and a new battle plan emerged. South Africa would relinquish two franchises – not the sacrifice it first appeared because it allowed them to establish a footprint in the northern hemisphere – and Australia would revert from five franchises to four.
This proved problematic in practice, an exercise intended to take 72 hours morphing into excruciating torture for rugby fans in Western Australia and lessons for the leadership of Australian rugby about how not to go about winning the hearts and minds of rugby supporters.
But ham-fisted or not, like a taxi trip through Kolkata, where the experience is less about enjoying the ride but simply making it to your destination intact, SANZAAR has emerged in 2018 with a 15-team competition restored and its broadcast partners still on board.
As harsh as it may sound it is this truth that tells the tale for WA fans – they are expendable, the broadcasters (who essentially fund rugby) are not.
So will reverting to 15 teams restore Super Rugby as a competition to be envied by rugby fans around the globe, re-engage local audiences and cause broadcasters and new media giants to start tapping away on their calculators ahead of the next round of rights negotiations?
In two words, yes and no.
Yes because some of the anomalies present in the 18-team competition that so upset fans have been removed. While it will still be possible for a side finishing with six wins to host an elimination finals match against a side finishing with 12 wins, as happened last year, it is far less likely.
Yes because 15 sides are more easily arranged into three conferences that are more logically constructed and that eliminate the impost of tens of thousands of flying kilometres.
Yes because there is promise that one of the key concerns with the 18-team competition, dilution of playing talent leading to a drop in quality, seems to have been addressed. Clearly the Melbourne Rebels are stronger than last year, the Waratahs too have added important new playing stock, and the Brumbies – last year’s top Australian side – certainly look no weaker.
Removal of the Cheetahs and Kings immediately heralds a more imposing South African presence. And with Rassie Erasmus edging into the driver’s seat at the expense of the irreconcilable Allister Coetzee, there is a feeling that the restoration of important South African rugby values such as abrasiveness and combativeness, and a sharper focus on player conditioning, will pay dividends.
The Sunwolves, too often the undermanned easybeats in their first two years in Super Rugby, also provide reason for optimism. For the first time they have been afforded more flexibility in selection and adequate time for preparation.
Conversely, all of the sides expecting to improve this season will still need to beat New Zealand franchises that are not standing still. What if the Rebels improve from one win last year to, say, seven, the Sunwolves from two wins and the Bulls from four, but New Zealand sides still top the ladder? Better perhaps, but hardly a win for the new format.
Some structural problems remain. The imbalance where not all South African franchises tour New Zealand and vice versa potentially gives rise to claims of illegitimate finalists. Such is the price paid for a cross-continental competition.
Shipping out the Cheetahs and Kings doesn’t align ambivalent Australian fans any closer to the Lions, Stormers, Bulls and Sharks, and won’t suddenly have them springing out of bed at 3.00am to switch on the TV. Some fans simply aren’t coming back to Super Rugby, whatever the format.
What is forgotten is that in the stampede to howl down the 18-team competition, one of the reasons given for expansion at the time was that Super Rugby had grown stale. Like a contrite adulterer forgiven his or her sins upon returning to the nest after a fizzled-out fling, one must hope that they aren’t soon reminded why they strayed in the first place.
It well may be that the stars align in the future so that Super Rugby, or some derivative of it, is in position to try expansion again. Picking up Perth, Fiji, Japan, North America, perhaps in concert with Andrew Forrest, or an alliance with the Pro 14 are all possibilities.
But today they are all pie in the sky, as remote as Bernard Tomic taking to the court of public opinion and winning ‘great bloke of the year’.
Right now, SANZAAR needs a season where it can learn how to walk again before it can front up to its broadcast partners, confident that it has a product with sufficient value to ensure the ongoing financial viability of all four unions. And because its most chronic problems have been in Australia, it is Australia more than any of the partners who must turn their fortunes around, and soon.
Sagacious Roar scribe Harry Jones tendered over the weekend the theory that the long-term future of southern hemisphere rugby rests with Australia. If one accepts that, in the professional era, rugby’s real battleground is commercial, and that New Zealand’s size, South Africa’s politics and Argentina’s rank confusion render each of them individually impotent in the long run, then this is almost certainly true.
Australia may never match England or France, but whatever the might of the AFL and the strong imprint of rugby league, football, cricket and netball in the Australian sporting fabric, Australia’s growing population and relative economic advantage provide an opportunity of sorts for rugby to forge a commercially viable path forward.
This will, of course, require bold leadership and competent administration that allows for re-connection to rugby’s grassroots and success at the elite level to occur simultaneously; not one at the expense of the other.
Despite the protestations of influential Sydney-centric rugby men, Australia withdrawing from Super Rugby in favour of a domestic solution is untenable – not unless Forrest is somehow coerced into covering the tens of millions forgone from SANZAAR, and then some. Annually.
It is for the same reason that New Zealand fans shouldn’t smugly regard this as Australia’s problem. While it is vitally important that each country tends to its own domestic structures, for as long as the money trail leads to England and France, the diminished financial outcome from Australia going it alone would only serve to hasten the loss of elite players from both sides of the Tasman.
So while Raelene Castle sets about bridge building and fence mending, and players are better identified, up-skilled and flogged into better shape, the immediate responsibility to shift momentum rests with the Australian Super Rugby franchises, none more so than the one in the biggest rugby market of Sydney, the Waratahs.
Trial footy isn’t competition footy, but the Waratahs have shown enough for fans to be cautiously optimistic that the plodding, uncertain funk of 2017 has been left behind. Daryl Gibson’s 2018 side has resolved to play with pace and purpose – in attack and defence – as if not to leave pregnant pauses in games for self-doubt to infiltrate and eat away at individual and collective confidence.
And let’s face it, any side at this level that contains Michael Hooper, Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale and Isreal Folau – let alone other seasoned internationals and promising up and comers – should always be an important factor at the sharp end of the competition.
Gibson and Waratahs fans may be intently focused on the short-term and whether Gibson gets to keep his job or not. Fair enough, but on their season I’d suggest that far bigger matters – the restoration of Australian rugby, and prospects for SANZAAR at the negotiating table – will turn.
It was thus disappointing that SANZAAR – a conglomerate that has never figured out how to market itself properly – began Super Rugby this year with a tentative, two-match ‘soft launch’ in South Africa. No chance of any prospective fence-sitting fan in Brisbane or Dubbo being hit between the eyes there and convinced to jump on board!
Trivia buffs can mark down Damien de Allende as the first try scorer for the season, beneficiary of a Jaguares defence that lacked intensity throughout the first half. To their credit, the Jaguares stayed in the contest, to the point where they were one scrum away from an unlikely win late in the match.
New Stormers flyhalf Damian Willemse showed poise on the ball and coach Robbie Fleck will be delighted to pick up a 28-20 win against a Test-strength side without his two forward pillars, who will rejoin the side for their tour to Australia and New Zealand.
It was a similar tale in Johannesburg, where the losing Sharks also found themselves in position to rescue the game late against the Lions. They foundered, however, due to an ineffective lineout maul that the Lions countered as decisively as they had dominated the Sharks’ scrum. Just as fans despair that rugby risks becoming a repetitive hybrid version of rugby league, we are reminded that set-piece dominance remains as important as ever.
What was most noticeable across the three South African franchises was the pace and elusiveness of the wingers on display, Lions debutant Aphiwe Dyanti taking the chocolates for his superb try after a grubber and re-gather at full pace.