Now is absolutely the time for SANZAAR to develop what comes next for the top levels of rugby – ideally, before the start of the 2019 season, we should know what the 2021 season will look like.
Perhaps the leaking of SANZAAR’s 2030 Strategy is a clever ploy to gain ideas from the faithful about what to do post-2020.
The following is another approach for how rugby in the south, across its various tiers, might be post-2020.
First, some definitions. I will use the following terms:
Tier 1: Test rugby – July (post 2019) for southern tours, August through October for Rugby Championship, November for northern tours.
Tier 2: formerly Super Rugby
Tier 3: Currie Cup, Mitre 10 Cup, NRC
Tier 4: Shute Shield, Premier Rugby, Dewar Shield, Premier Grade, John I Dent Cup
Test Rugby is the pinnacle of Rugby, as it should be. But are we playing too much of it? Rugby doesn’t play ‘friendlies’, so let’s make them meaningful and valuable!
We all want to see the best rugby players as often as possible, so where and when they are playing is vital to the fans, be it at the ground or on television.
I enjoy watching the South Africa teams, but, being on the east coast of Australia, the time the games are played is challenging. Many Australians also want to see the SA teams play against Australian teams, especially when those games are important.
Currently in Australia, we start the rugby season with Tier 2, then Tier 4 starts. Then Tier 1 starts in June, and then stops, while Tier 4 continues. Then Tier 2 concludes and Tier 1 starts again, and Tier 4 stops and Tier 3 starts. The rugby landscape, at least in Australia, is a mess!
Some assumptions before providing a possible solution
The new Test window in July allows for Tier 3 and Tier 2 rugby to be completed by end of June.
The same four nations will have to agree to the new broadcast deal: South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina.
New Zealand will demand that its teams can play against SA teams at Tier 2 level.
There is too much international travel in Super Rugby.
The new deal, in the first instance, must be acceptable for SA and New Zealand because they bring in the lion’s share of the money.
There must be increased FTA for Australia.
While in an ideal world we might start the rugby season with Tier 4, then Tier 3 and so on, I can’t see that working. So let’s start with Tier 3 to begin the season. I acknowledge that will mean asking New Zealand and SA to move their competitions to begin in February.
South Africa, New Zealand and Australia can run their Tier 3 competitions as they see fit, as long as their respective two best teams are available for the Tier 2 competition, which would start at the beginning of May. This means starting the Tier 3 comp in February, as we do now for Super Rugby. A benefit of this is that Test stars will be more available. Tier 3 is then a more attractive product with increased participation by Test stars and better timing.
For Australia, the Tier 3 competition would be a six or eight-team comp, each team playing each other home and away, with no finals series and no byes! Teams would be from (geographical areas, not names of the teams themselves) Sydney, Western Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, ACT/Country NSW (for six teams), with an additional Queensland side and a separate NSW Country team for an eight-team comp.
For Australia, that means a ten to 14-week series, depending on a six or eight-team comp. We then move immediately to Tier 2.
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Tier 2 is a champions league – eight teams, everyone plays each other once, followed by semi-finals and final. Nine weeks overall, played from May to June.
The eight teams are comprised the top two teams from SA, New Zealand and Australia’s Tier 3 competitions, together with a Japanese and an Argentine team.
Teams play every week, no byes. Every other week you have a home game, as each team would have in Tier 3. This ensures fans don’t have to go extended periods before see their team in action at home.
Now, to add a level of intrigue and exoticism to Tier 2, players from the teams that did not progress from Tier 3, but within the same conference, can be co-opted by the successful teams.
For example, if Brisbane and Western Force are the Australian sides to progress to the Tier 2 comp, either team could approach any player from the other Australian Tier 3 teams to be part of their campaign. As of course can SA and NZ. These marquee players would be limited in numbers.
This provides opportunities for the best players from each conference to continue their participation if their team fails to progress. This is great for fans, important for national coaches, and attractive for broadcasters.
Tier 1 as the pinnacle must be protected. Australia and New Zealand should get rid of the third Bledisloe game. A three-Test series (or four if the country wants) in July, six Test series for the Rugby Championship in August through October, then three or four Tests in the northern tour can provide what is needed for Test rugby.
That’s a minimum of 12 with maximum of 14 Tests in a non-World Cup year.
How the pay for this? TV coverage would be as follows:
Tier 1 – FTA and pay, as per now
Tier 2 – Live on pay with replay on FTA
Tier 3 – FTA and pay
Tier 4 – Match of the round and finals FTA and pay
State of Origin
There will be a two to three-week gap between the end of the July Test window and the beginning of the Rugby Championship. This is when Australian rugby’s State of Origin is played.
Queensland vs NSW, two games, back to back. TV coverage is pay only. Either get to the ground or pay for view.
Australia can’t afford to go it alone and New Zealand don’t want a trans-Tasman comp, as they want to play SA sides, and SA sides help to bring in more money, which will be needed in my model, as it provides less product at Tier 2 level. I would add the South Africa teams bring something different, and valuable in the games themselves.
Is this perfect? Of course not! Does it address the key issues? Perhaps. Do we need to change from what we have? Absolutely!