In the wake of the Hurricanes’ thrilling 31-28 win over the Highlanders on Friday night, Fox Sports rugby panelist Cam Shepherd declared “that was some of the best footy I’ve seen in a long time.”
Shepherd certainly wasn’t wrong, his body language and voice illustrating his genuine excitement at having just witnessed a high-quality match complete with nail-biting finish.
The takeaway was to contrast this with Shepherd’s recent commentary of the Global Rapid Rugby (GRR) matches between the Western Force and a ‘World XV’ and the South China Tigers.
This is not an article denigrating GRR or the Force. With Super Rugby shrinking by the season, the fact that there is a professional rugby outlet for players and fans in Western Australia with potential to help spread the game wider in Asia is undeniably positive.
But Shepherd, match caller Gordon Bray, and GRR do themselves no favours by trying to convince viewers that they are watching something akin to the second coming of Jonah Lomu, and talking up a grab-bag of experimental law changes as if they are required to restore excitement in rugby and attract new eyes to the game.
Shepherd clearly knows when it is Twiggy who is buttering his bread. But he also knows rugby and knows the difference between hyping a ‘World XV’ full of players well past their prime or who can’t land a contract elsewhere, and a fair-dinkum, playing for points, bodies on the line derby in Dunedin.
A contest that featured players of genuine world class, like Ardie Savea, Beauden Barrett and Ben Smith.
This match by no means contained the only Super Rugby excitement from the weekend. A number of open, exciting encounters mixed spectacular running tries with bone-crunching defence, and there were courageous comebacks away from home from the Waratahs (who fell just short) and the Jaguares (who didn’t).
One of the supposed failings of rugby is that the ball is not in play for long enough. Yet I’d defy anyone to watch the breathless first half from the Crusaders versus Brumbies match and explain what the actual problem is and why the game needs tinkering with.
A couple of hours after the Hurricanes victory in Dunedin, I was bailed up at a party by a chap eager to tell me everything that was wrong about rugby.
You know the generalisations and clichés already – the game used to be good but now it’s boring, too much kicking, too many scrums, referees making rules up as they go along, players only in it for the money, that sort of thing.
He clearly hadn’t seen what I’d just seen.
Changing these sorts of perceptions requires a narrative (rugby is a great game that will reward viewing and participation), a channel (the means by which that message is conveyed to fans and potential fans) and a selling proposition (a trigger mechanism to get people to actually engage with the sport as viewers and/or participants).
Rugby in Australia has struggled in recent times to establish a positive narrative. Its off-field administrative woes actually pale by comparison to some of the issues plaguing football, rugby league, Cricket and AFL, yet there are those in the game whose political and personal agendas are served by the continual undermining of the game, and who are happy for negative perceptions to rule the public domain.
The lack of recent success for the Wallabies is also a major factor – nothing galvanises widespread support for the sport like winning a World Cup, or even a Bledisloe Cup.
While we saw what Olympic Women’s Sevens success meant for the psyche of the sport and women’s participation, it came before the women’s game had established a domestic foothold, limiting the leverage that could be gained.
Nevertheless, if we accept that we have a great product – and anyone who watches Super Rugby regularly knows this is true – the prime challenge is to better connect more people to the game.
It’s no easy task; in Australia the game now requires tens of millions of dollars in revenue each year to survive, let alone flourish.
That is money that can only be obtained from commercial broadcast partners, who naturally want to pursue and enhance their own commercial objectives, but in doing so, cocoon the game from a large mass of free-to-air television viewers.
But the landscape is changing, and while pay-for-view subscription television will still form a crucial part of the next round of broadcast rights for SANZAAR, there is high potential to increase the reach of the game to new (and lapsed) viewers via evolution in the digital space.
For example, Customer Relationship Management Systems (CRMs) are now so sophisticated they allow companies to engage directly with clients and prospective clients in ways that are tailored to their specific interests.
All of us receive spam e-mail and flyers in our letterbox from companies selling products and services we don’t care for. We are bombarded daily on TV and radio by advertising that we willfully ignore, because the product being sold is of no interest to us.
But increasingly, we also receive advertising, e-mails, sms messages, alerts and links to content that is targeted and tailored to our lifestyle preferences. These are derived from specific information we have provided, or are based on previous purchases we’ve made.
Imagine you are a school-aged halfback, anywhere in Australia. Within minutes of Will Genia winding the clock back to 2013 and scoring his remarkable, arcing 50m try directly from a line-out against the Sunwolves, you receive an alert, linking to a replay of the try, along with an aspirational message saying this is what great rugby halfbacks do.
And then during the week, you get a follow-up message from Will, containing a tip on how to position your feet and body low to the ground, in order to sweep the ball fast and accurately off the deck, off both hands.
Can you imagine any more powerful tool to keep youngsters engaged with rugby, working at their own game, to stimulate them into pestering mum and dad for a Kayo subscription, or to take them along to the next home match, plus a new pair of boots?
To an extent Super Rugby franchises already engage in similar ways with their membership bases, and Rugby Australia, for example, operates a website, rugby.com.au and an app, Rugby Xplorer, that provide fans with a steady stream of information in various forms.
As well constructed as these are, they are mostly passive, preach to the converted, and lack the sophistication, impact and presence to reach and engage new, targeted audiences.
They also don’t address the problem of how Super Rugby is subject to the marketing devices and resources of the individual member nations, each with its own needs and internal issues, rather than it being unambiguously promoted through a singly focused, quasi-independent organisation.
Unsurprisingly, it is the AFL that sets the benchmark for the region, with their AFL Media Network division alone employing almost as many people as Rugby Australia does in total.
Having their own network allows the AFL to retain control of and monetise the digital component of their game, while simultaneously providing them with a powerful, direct link to its supporter base.
There have been valid concerns raised from other media about the coverage provided lacking independence and being a PR front, but any sporting administration will happily cop this all day if it means that the trade-off is the reach and connectivity it provides them to fans and prospective fans.
Watch too for advances in the EPL and US professional sports, which also provide a glimpse of how rugby might, in the future, better sell its message to the market.
Ardie Savea is one player helping to ‘sell’ the game, against the Highlanders, like a first-time tourist to India, doing it at both ends. His star continues to ascend, from ‘everyday’ All Black to becoming one of the game’s truly elite players.
The Hurricanes deserve credit for again having the class to win a match they could easily have lost, although they were aided by the home team who, after turning down a certain draw, and going a man up into a final 5m lineout, inexplicably ignored the money ball to Shannon Frizell, and kissed away the win.
There was less skill on offer in Brisbane, the Stormers’ tactic of rapid ball movement from side to side proving incompatible with the catching and distribution skills of their front rowers.
That’s three wins now for Brad Thorn’s Reds – the same as the Waratahs, one more than the Brumbies, Highlanders and Chiefs and about ten short of the number required to satisfy skeptics.
A word of caution for those rushing to prematurely promote halfback Tate McDermott into the Wallabies for (in one and a half matches), doing not much more than his job. Take a look at what 19-year-old Folau Fakatava offered in the last twenty minutes of the Highlanders’ match, draw breath and have a sit down.
Hands up who saw the Sharks 41-5 away demolition of the Lions coming? Thought so.
The Brumbies played a great first half to achieve the rare distinction of holding the Crusaders to nil, at home. But once the big red engine cranked up they had no answer, 36-14 ultimately a fair reflection of the gap between the sides.
Rising star Will Jordan had an interesting afternoon, twice being tackled high but still able to scramble over for tries in the corner. A player with more experience might have instead been tempted to spill the ball and forgo the try, in favour of receiving a penalty try, and a guaranteed seven points.
The Waratahs played some good football in Auckland, Israel Folau’s straighten and release for Alex Newsome’s try pretty to watch. But their slow start and some aimless kicking did them no favours, as did Ma’a Nonu’s class and the Blues’ newly-found grit.
Three minutes is an eternity to ruck the ball up continuously and play out the clock. That the Blues even attempted it, let alone managed it successfully, speaks to their continuing maturation and development.
There was much to like about the Rebels’ 42-15 win against the Sunwolves, including the lineout work of Adam Coleman, potency in the backline attack, and the energy and defensive clout from the bench.
One of the benefits of playing flat at the line as the Rebels do was nicely demonstrated by Quade Cooper’s first-half try.
Support players are able to run narrower lines, which provides them with a critical front foot advantage over the defence, which in turn provides more passing options as more players are brought into play as supporting runners.
While their line-out malfunctioned all night, this was not a weak Sunwolves side, and when coach Tony Brown spoke afterwards about promising to deliver the mother of all challenges to the Hurricanes in two weeks’ time, I for one believed him.
Despite the Bulls resting some first-choice players, the Jaguares finishing with two late tries in Pretoria to snatch a 22-20 win was another huge upset.
Debutant replacement winger Domingo Miotti took the plaudits as the double try-scorer, although Pablo Matera’s 40m first-half try-scoring run was really one to savour.
This year’s Super W final might have lacked last years’ extra time drama, but both sides again delivered a gripping and exciting contest, NSW dominating territory to deservedly retain their title with a bruising 8-5 win at Leichhardt Oval.
Over time, with natural development, we can expect to see the skills and pace of the outside players become more prominent.
In the meantime, this final provided lessons for all rugby players – a solid set-piece is the bedrock for winning any rugby match, and a determined attitude to fully commit one’s body in defence can take you a long way to saving it.
Serious business, but great fun!