The Wrap: Will reversion to 15 teams be enough to revive Super Rugby?

Geoff Parkes Columnist

By Geoff Parkes, Geoff Parkes is a Roar Expert


209 Have your say

    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.

    CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - JULY 21: TJ Perenara of the Hurricanes heads to the try line to score during the Super Rugby Quarter Final match between the Brumbies and the Hurricanes at Canberra Stadium on July 21, 2017 in Canberra, Australia.

    (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

    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.

    Super Rugby Fans Reds Highlanders 2016

    (AAP Image/Glenn Hunt)

    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.

    Andrew Forrest with Western Force players

    (AAP Image/Justin Chadwick)

    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.

    Geoff Parkes
    Geoff Parkes

    Geoff is a Melbourne-based sports fanatic and writer who started contributing to The Roar in 2012 under the pen name Allanthus. His first book, A World in Union Conflict; The Global Battle For Rugby Supremacy, was released in December 2017 to critical acclaim. For details on the book visit Meanwhile, his twin goals of achieving a single figure golf handicap and owning a fast racehorse remain tantalisingly out of reach.

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    The Crowd Says (209)

    • February 19th 2018 @ 7:28am
      KiwiHaydn said | February 19th 2018 @ 7:28am | ! Report

      The Super competition in Australia needs both the Reds and Tahs to be strong. Hopefully BBTs toughening up routine will help to build the developing Reds – they certainly have the opportunity to lure a bit more interest from NZ fans by taking on the ‘better men make better rugby players’ ethos (and by standing down QC).

      The Tahs, well hopefully they can find some form of their own to keep their fans happy. Personally, I’m won’t be losing any sleep if they have a horror year, but their success is key to tapping into the commercial market and money that Australian rugby so badly needs.

      • Columnist

        February 19th 2018 @ 8:05am
        Geoff Parkes said | February 19th 2018 @ 8:05am | ! Report

        Yes that’s the point I’m trying to make KH. All of the sides are important but the Sydney market is the most important.

        It’s easy enough to keep tabs on too. If you tune into a Tahs game and you can see “ALLIANZ” on the far side then you know things are going badly. If you can’t read it then that means there are bums on seats!

        • February 19th 2018 @ 10:26am
          Rebellion said | February 19th 2018 @ 10:26am | ! Report

          The conference system is what turns me off the most. Especially considering the standard of Australian derbys which are usually poor & spoiling.

          Get rid of the other expansion teams (Pumas, Sunwolves) and restore to a fair structure where every team plays each other once.

          If the Rebels can’t show any reasonable promise after three seasons then i’d argue that they should be cut too.

          • Columnist

            February 19th 2018 @ 10:34am
            Geoff Parkes said | February 19th 2018 @ 10:34am | ! Report

            Hi Rebellion

            It’s true that – for whatever reason – audiences in this part of the world don’t warm to conferences.

            To drop two teams and play a round robin would mean 12 rounds then finals, say with 5 or six teams participating. That’s not enough content for the broadcasters. The rugby might be better but there wouldn’t be enough of it and it would mean a significant drop in revenue for each nation.

            Which would mean less money for grass roots rugby and lower salaries for players, which would mean the better ones leaving the competition for the NH….

            • February 19th 2018 @ 11:40am
              Celtic334 said | February 19th 2018 @ 11:40am | ! Report

              Plus increased travel costs, more time for players away from families and only 6/7 home games a season. We already have one of the shortest major professional sporting competition in the world, shortening it any more would deem us almost invisible.

    • February 19th 2018 @ 7:38am
      Malo said | February 19th 2018 @ 7:38am | ! Report

      Most people don’t realise it has started. Can’t wait for the league to start and club rugby in April . No marketing seems to be the key for the aru. Don’t promote the game and the game will prosper is there motto.

      • February 19th 2018 @ 7:43am
        KiwiHaydn said | February 19th 2018 @ 7:43am | ! Report

        Why would you want to be marketing the competition now while there’s a break between cricket and the league/AFL season starting?

      • Columnist

        February 19th 2018 @ 7:58am
        Geoff Parkes said | February 19th 2018 @ 7:58am | ! Report

        “Can’t wait for the league to start”

        Another quality contribution Malo/Sponge/Jock/Squirrel

        • February 19th 2018 @ 10:43am
          ScottD said | February 19th 2018 @ 10:43am | ! Report

          He is right though. RA hasn’t marketed the start of SR at all as far as I can see. Or if it has it has been perfunctory at best.
          Where is the passion and inspiration? Don’t they care if people attend or not? They are certainly sending all the wrong signals from where I sit and have done that for the last few years

          • Columnist

            February 19th 2018 @ 11:04am
            Geoff Parkes said | February 19th 2018 @ 11:04am | ! Report

            Absolutely Scott.

            I’m more sympathetic than many towards our senior rugby administrators because I believe that the problems they are faced with are 1) mostly not of their own making, and 2) are more complex and nuanced than people give credit for.

            But there has undoubtedly been a failure to engage with fans, to inform them, to help them understand why some things happen and other things don’t, and to capture their imagination. And this half-pie limp into the new season illustrates that.

            • February 19th 2018 @ 12:32pm
              Nicolai said | February 19th 2018 @ 12:32pm | ! Report

              Nearly drove into a tree last week!!!

              There was an add on radio here in Melbourne for the REBELS vs REDS Game!!!

              • Columnist

                February 19th 2018 @ 12:53pm
                Geoff Parkes said | February 19th 2018 @ 12:53pm | ! Report

                SEN, under new management, have had Dave Wessels into the studio too during their breakfast program. So there are some little rays of sunshine out there Nicolai!

              • February 19th 2018 @ 2:03pm
                Nicolai said | February 19th 2018 @ 2:03pm | ! Report

                YES Geoff — Did listen to the one with Dave Wessels — was GOOD!!
                And a few others (not enough) over the years that got airtime on SEN.

            • Roar Guru

              February 19th 2018 @ 1:56pm
              The Neutral View From Sweden said | February 19th 2018 @ 1:56pm | ! Report

              GP, you are closer to the men in power than me, so maybe you know. Is there any awareness among the top brass at NZR and RA that SR needs to stand on its own feet more? They already milk the Test teams to the limit to make extra dollars, so the way I see it, the only way to boost revenue streams is through SR. But SR is still – at the bone – treated as a trial training ground for the Test teams first and foremost.
              Too me, Sanzaar as an organization comes through very amateurish. Maybe that is harsh, maybe the real reason is that there are four chefs who want cook after their own liking first and foremost? Have the top-brass even considered to hire an independent commissioner to run, sell and market SR?

              • Columnist

                February 19th 2018 @ 2:29pm
                Geoff Parkes said | February 19th 2018 @ 2:29pm | ! Report

                Hi NV

                I think that most people agree that Super Rugby in isolation could be substantially better if SANZAAR cut it adrift and allowed it to be run by an independent commission or similar.

                But of course it isn’t that simple. For everything that might gained on one hand, there would be other difficulties arise. Not the least would be tensions emerging between franchises and the national unions.

                Remember that in this part of the world there are perceived to be significant advantages to having the players contracted to the central unions rather than clubs. What you are alluding to might make for a better stand alone competition but would mitigate that advantage.

                For example NZ Rugby’s biggest fear is that what might make SR better would potentially make the All Blacks weaker. I know they have looked at a different governance structure but I don’t think this is a risk they would be prepared to take.

              • Roar Guru

                February 19th 2018 @ 2:55pm
                The Neutral View From Sweden said | February 19th 2018 @ 2:55pm | ! Report

                I hear you GP, but the big elephant in the room is that the AB’s will get weaker if the player drain continues in the same tempo (and it will most likely accelerate if not the next broadcast deal is a great one and the NH all the sudden goes into a recession). Whatever it was that was working yesterday, will not always work tomorrow.

                So is this current setup really the best for the AB’s? Maybe until 2019, but after that, you would have to have a very open relationship to the truth to advocate that.

              • Columnist

                February 19th 2018 @ 3:34pm
                Geoff Parkes said | February 19th 2018 @ 3:34pm | ! Report

                Yes that’s fair and I think we are seeing NZ Rugby continue to work hard looking at new solutions, such as the potential for more player sabbaticals at designated overseas clubs.

              • Roar Guru

                February 19th 2018 @ 3:49pm
                The Neutral View From Sweden said | February 19th 2018 @ 3:49pm | ! Report

                Yes that’s fair and I think we are seeing NZ Rugby continue to work hard looking at new solutions, such as the potential for more player sabbaticals at designated overseas clubs.

                But this what baffles me. Why look at solutions outside SR and Sanzaar?
                Solutions that will only make SR an even weaker product (and that will hurt NZR and the AB’s, while a stronger SR will help NZR and the AB’s).

                I am starting to feel like Don Quijote, where is see solutions and possibilities, everyone else sees windmills.

              • Columnist

                February 19th 2018 @ 6:19pm
                Geoff Parkes said | February 19th 2018 @ 6:19pm | ! Report

                You’re not the custodian of NZ and Australian rugby NV.

                All you see is potential upside because you’re free to do so. You don’t carry any of the responsibility and risk on your shoulders.

              • February 20th 2018 @ 11:09am
                Bakkies said | February 20th 2018 @ 11:09am | ! Report

                Geoff the RA have hardly behaved like the custodian of the game in Australia.

    • February 19th 2018 @ 7:39am
      Malo said | February 19th 2018 @ 7:39am | ! Report

      Why get rid of the cheetahs when you keep the rebels

    • Roar Guru

      February 19th 2018 @ 7:48am
      Kia Kaha said | February 19th 2018 @ 7:48am | ! Report

      Thanks, Geoff.

      The new Super format needs the Crusaders to hold the trophy aloft once again this year. That’ll bring back the pundits.

      • February 19th 2018 @ 7:49am
        KiwiHaydn said | February 19th 2018 @ 7:49am | ! Report

        Or perhaps the Blues?

      • Columnist

        February 19th 2018 @ 8:00am
        Geoff Parkes said | February 19th 2018 @ 8:00am | ! Report

        No self interest there KK?

        Truth is, 15 teams, 6 teams or 30 teams, it wouldn’t matter. The Crusaders are going to be a contender no matter what.

      • Roar Pro

        February 19th 2018 @ 11:32am
        PapanuiPirate said | February 19th 2018 @ 11:32am | ! Report

        The success of the Super Rugby Competition is directly proportional to the number of titles one by the Crusaders in a given three year period.

        The stats don’t lie.

    • Roar Guru

      February 19th 2018 @ 8:10am
      Kia Kaha said | February 19th 2018 @ 8:10am | ! Report

      Don’t mind me, Geoff.

      Atléti remain second in the league after their home game (still undefeated in the new stadium in La Liga) and have been out all day.

      There does seem a world weary fatigue about Super rugby and the flight of rugby capital.

      Hard to remain positive in this current climate. Hence the Crusaders win. 😉

    • February 19th 2018 @ 8:46am
      Daveski said | February 19th 2018 @ 8:46am | ! Report

      Saw one match plus highlights over the weekend and quality was good and local crowds reasonable. Hopefully that’s an indicator of things to come. But yeah the two-game “round 1” was a dumb way to begin things and I bet right now half the people planning to go out and watch Tahs v Stormers this weekend don’t know the Stormers have already played a game.

      Sth African pace on wings will be a key feature this year. Dyanti, Nkosi, Mpimpi,Mahuza…. names to remember ( or try too at least ). Even Raymond Rhule looked fast, sharp and bulked up a bit though time will tell if he’s worked on his tackling…

      • Columnist

        February 19th 2018 @ 8:56am
        Geoff Parkes said | February 19th 2018 @ 8:56am | ! Report

        I nearly jumped out of my chair Daveski when Raymond attempted a tackle… and it stuck!

        • February 19th 2018 @ 12:42pm
          Nicolai said | February 19th 2018 @ 12:42pm | ! Report

          ha ha ha GOOD ONE Geoff!!!

          The STORMERS — my team since birth, is like a family member in jail — you love them dearly BUT don’t talk about them in public!!!!

          YES was worried when I saw that the Stormers signed Rhule this year.
          Somehow the STORMERS are able to underachieve year after year after year!!!

          Well lets hope my home team — GO REBELS can start the season with a WIN this Friday!!!

          GO REBELS, GO STORMERS!!!!