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The current Super Rugby format doesn’t seem to be working. Four of five New Zealand teams are dominating, while Australian teams still languish, with South African performances in between.
By contrast, Northern Hemisphere rugby competitions are thriving. Rugby is the second most popular sport in France, where tribalism is strong.
What is tribalism anyway? Most seem to agree that it’s a necessary factor for the success of a competition. Tribalism probably means that there is a lively and consistent crowd at home matches, who go there through thick and thin – welded-on supporters who just want to feel they are part of something.
Tribalism means that the supporters can enjoy the matches even if their team is having a rough trot. But before a club can enjoy their supporters’ trust, they must earn it over an extended period. The fans must feel close to the club – have skin in the game.
Format changes and talk of other changes are a major detriment to the development and maintenance of that feeling of tribalism.
The Super Rugby format has changed this year by dropping one Australian team, the Western Force, and two South African teams, the Cheetahs and Southern Kings.
Those two South African teams then grafted themselves on to the UK Pro14 competition, apparently successfully. The closeness of the timezones of South Africa and UK make TV viewing in South Africa more attractive – a clear danger signal for continued participation by South African teams in Super Rugby.
Crowds are poor in Australia, where local teams have not consistently performed at the level fans want to see. Those performances have shown a range of problems, from basic skills, to a failure to recognise when a strategy isn’t working.
An example of that was the continued use of Taqele Naiyaravoro in the midfield by the Waratahs against the Lions, seemingly denying to themselves that he was being gang-tackled, having the ball stripped, or knocking on, resulting in continual turnovers and no gain-line success.
Now, if he was a decoy instead, there would have been a ton of space available for exploitation.
Clever players are required to play cleverly. Does that mean that the Waratahs have a lack of cleverness among their ranks? How does the coaching impinge upon what the players do on the field? Are the players unable to think for themselves, or do they feel constrained to doggedly follow the coaching plan?
Crowds in New Zealand are better, but not great by any means, and they have the advantage of strongly performing teams, as well as having five unchanged franchises from the 1996 start of Super Rugby.
The Crusaders have had strong support throughout, and the Hurricanes are building it now on the back of strong success. The Chiefs have generally struggled to get big crowds, and the Highlanders do have rusted on support in the true sense of tribalism. The Blues are doing poorly on and off the field.
Crowds are reasonable in South Africa, with the better-performing teams draw better crowds – again, on-field performances play a big part there.
TV audiences were up a little at the start of the year off a low, probably unsustainable base in Australia, perhaps because a new format invited viewer optimism.
The key to rugby that crowds want to go to and audiences will watch on TV is games where both teams have a good chance of victory.
On the flipside, a confusing format – involving conferences where teams from one conference play each other twice, and play only some teams from the other conferences once – is an audience turn-off.
On this point, SANZAAR seem to think that the local derbies are good for Super Rugby, leading thme to easily gloss over the loss of the competition’s integrity.
The original Super Rugby format – three Australian, four South African and five New Zealand teams – worked well, with teams only playing one full round, and no local derby double-ups. But by trying to milk TV revenue, SANZAAR have damaged the product.
The domination of New Zealand teams is now having a detrimental effect, which started in earnest when the competition started the conference system. Because of the relative strength of New Zealand rugby, their local derbies mean more matches for New Zealand teams against the strongest opposition – other Kiwi teams.
It also aids a faster cross-pollination of ideas between their teams, with more productive experimentation further improving them, with a flow-on to the All Blacks as well.
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That said, Super Rugby is salvageable, but SANZAAR need to go back to the original format, admit that they buggered up and apologise.
They also need to commit to that format for at least ten years without any alteration. If that means that there is less TV revenue, so less cash to pay players, then stars will go to the Northern Hemisphere, but others always step up to take their place, and the supporters will warm to them quickly.
The tribes, once properly established, will stay loyal.
Super Rugby needs a presence on free-to-air TV in Australia, with two live matches per week in the 5pm to 10pm timeslot on Friday or Saturday the minimum. An ‘Extra Time’ package each week, shown maybe at multiple different times, is also mandatory.
But the development of Aussie junior rugby is the most important aspect for the long-term health and viability of the game. If Super Rugby goes belly-up, we need enough organisational skills and paid development officers to get competitions back into public schools, with coordination and affiliations to local clubs for assistance.
The 2016 Shute Shield final – between Northern Suburbs and Sydney University – drew a capacity crowd of about 20,000 and the atmosphere was electric. In 2017 it was nearly as good when Norths played Warringah. That’s where the tribes went. They aren’t lost yet.
To have both a tribal passion for local club rugby and the common tribal passion for its Super Rugby team is the dream – and it can still happen.