With Super Rugby Aotearoa wrapped up and Super Rugby AU coming to its conclusion, the question looming large in everyone’s minds is what’s next?
The 2021 season is not that far away, so it’s starting to look as though launching a Super Rugby competition encompassing the Asia-Pacific region may not be feasible for next year.
Now, assuming that NZ Rugby and Rugby AU manage to work out their much publicised differences and get on with things, a kick-off in 2022 could be a more realistic goal.
The upside to that delay is that they could create a competition that actually works.
The question is how?
The answer lies in re-imagining Super Rugby:
A good way to start is that the actual premiership trophy or cup itself be named after a guy who was a founding father of the professional game – Jonah Lomu.
It would be a fitting tribute to the man who gave world rugby so much, as well as creating an iconic and even more aspirational appeal to winning a Super Rugby championship.
With the refresh, let’s also look at playing Super Rugby in rugby season. Start it in mid-March, playing a round-robin system where each team plays each other once only.
That way, the competition won’t suffer from the rugby season gate-crashing our summer, as has been the case over the past few years. It would ease the need for players have their playing workload managed.
Obviously a timetable like this would be determined by how many teams are in the competition. So…
Forget all the bickering – let’s lay out a format with 12 teams. Yes, 12.
Include five Australian sides (including Western Force), the five existing New Zealand sides, one new Pasifika team and welcome back the franchise with the best crowds in all of Super Rugby – the Sunwolves from Japan.
I can hear all the arguments about competitiveness and blowout scores already, but this format can actually work. All we need is for Super Rugby to actually turn pro.
What do I mean by that?
Mark Ella suggested back in 2018 that an open-border policy should exist in Super Rugby. That means that any player can play for any Super Rugby team regardless of what country they qualify to play Test rugby for.
Add in an effective salary cap and you could see players like Samu Kerevi and Beauden Barrett chase big dollars in Japan and play for the Sunwolves and not be lost to Super Rugby. Just imagine Barrett and Kerevi in the Sunwolves’ back line.
Other players like Taniela Tupou could represent his Tongan roots while remaining a Wallaby, and emerging talent like Reesjan Pasitoa, Fraser McReight, Asafo Aumua, Will Jordan and Etene Nanai-Seturo could flourish, getting more game time by being in the starting side, not stuck on bench duties. Let money and opportunities dictate where players go. That’s a professional competition.
For the 2022 launch season, you could kick-start things and go all in with teams only allowed to protect their top 15 players and put the rest into an NFL/NBA style draft. Picture this: “With the first overall pick, the Pasifika team select…”
Think that would draw some interest?!
It’s time for Super Rugby to pull better crowds by vastly improving the experience for fans at games too. That starts with better stadiums.
Sydney and Christchurch are getting new digs (and not before time too). Next stop should be looking at Auckland, especially with Eden Park having outlived it’s practicality and with the pending potential of having an Auckland-based Pasifika team.
Why not future-proof these stadiums too with covered playing fields, bars and food courts to really elevate game day and make more people want to head along.
Better alignment of games will also draw a wider supporter base. The idea of curtain-raiser games that could cover women’s rugby, club rugby and marquee high school matches could draw more supporters, engage fans and better integrate Super Rugby’s presence in the overall rugby landscape.
Getting the number of playoff teams right is important to create a suitable amount of incentive for teams and reinforce meaningful matches.
For a 12-team competition like this, a top-five playoff series would be great. The format would basically match what the NRL used to offer with the top three sides being given a second life in the playoffs and taking four weeks to complete.
So an 11-week round robin plus four weeks of playoffs equals 15 weeks total. The top teams could also qualify for a Champions League-style format against other top clubs from around the globe. Then we’d really see who the best club team in the world is.
All in all, such a re-imagining of the competition would further accentuate its star power, create more exciting matches, create a more manageable playing programme and – most of all – treat fans to the true potential of Super Rugby.