Poor Nic Groom may struggle to live this one down!
News out of South Africa that their Super Rugby teams will explore playing in a PRO16 tournament next year raises many questions over the future of Super Rugby in 2022 and beyond.
This feels less like the end of a movie and more like the start of the sequel.
This is the first part of a two-article series exploring the possible future of Super Rugby for 2022 and beyond based on what has happened in the past. I’ll focus on theory, where things worked well and where things went wrong, mostly in relation to quality and narrative.
The second article will try to put theory into practice with a model for how Super Rugby could look in 2022 and beyond. All the pieces for a great competition are present, they just need to be arranged properly. This competition should not be thrown away lightly, because it is one of the reasons behind the success of southern hemisphere rugby.
This article will continue with the following assumptions: that all SANZAAR members and Japan wish to participate, that South Africa wishes to retain all six teams, that Australia will retain all five teams and that Culling or merging teams is not the answer.
Engaging sports competitions contain at least two ingredients: quality and narrative. For the purposes of this article ‘narrative’ means the stories that make fans support or dislike players and teams, creating rivalries, as well as holding interest to get through possibly dire play.
Given the geography involved since the start of Super Rugby, narratives were always difficult to achieve.
The lack of narrative was never much of a problem for Super 12 because the quality so high, the competition was short and it was not designed to be the national domestic competition. National and state competitions are where narratives should have been created. The initial Super 12 was engaging because every game was close to international standards of quality and intensity and the amateur/semi-pro local scene was still in place.
Super Rugby helped the national teams by having current and prospective internationals test themselves against the best local and foreign talent. Players were able to condition themselves to different environments, vocal fans and travel itself. It can’t be definitively proven that this is behind SANZAAR nations winning five from six World Cups since the start of Super 12, but it hasn’t hurt.
Two main factors that have contributed to the competitions downfall: expecting very different rugby cultures to act in the same way and using Super Rugby for development.
In the beginning each country played to their strengths and contributed according to their amateur history. South Africa used the successful Currie Cup teams as the bases for their clubs. Aotearoa was similar but more nationally focussed, creating franchises based on as equal a geographic spread as they could achieve, making sure no potential international player missed out due to playing for a small province. Australia set up their teams like representative squads based in cities with strong club competitions.
What all of the clubs shared was strength and local understanding – they were in areas that already had strong rugby cultures, ideal to compete in a competition to find the best province, franchise or state in the rugby world.
But this balance was disrupted when expansion teams formed to develop talent, whether in new frontiers such as Perth or Melbourne or to an uninterested group of people like the Kings.
The Jaguares did it right, and Japan could have followed suit if not for infighting between the JRU and the businesses that own Top League clubs. Development is crucial for the future of the game and should have been implemented better within the national scene.
Hindsight always makes everything look easier, so the way forward for Super Rugby would be to look after these developing teams and nurture them.
High-quality games are still regularly played by top teams. Stripping back to Super 12 or even Super 14 is not the answer. Removing teams is not the same as having them not exist in the first place, and I would be furious if my team were cut.
Player drain to Europe has had just as much of an impact on the quality of the competition as the increasing number of squads. The reality is that to achieve Super 12-quality by cutting teams, fewer than 12 would remain. It is better to look after the fans and players and achieve this through structural change.
It’s time to address travel and the conference system. They aren’t killing the competition on their own. For the original SANZAAR nations travel has remained largely unchanged – it has always been about four or five regular-season games overseas. Adding Japan and Argentina has added a bit of distance, but travelling across the Indian Ocean has always been difficult. The conference system has stopped travel from getting out of control.
There was some good to the much-disliked conference system. Most of the complaints are not about the system itself but in the unfairness that it creates. If implemented better, playing more games against domestic foes and decreasing travel could increase the narrative aspect of Super Rugby.
This has been evident in the lockdown competitions, whose winners are essentially the conference champions just given the correct amount of importance. The problems were how the conference system affected the season and finals as well as making the national champions seem unimportant.
Putting all of the pieces together, future Super Rugby competitions should allow top teams to put on great matches against each other. Develop the lower teams to higher levels and place more importance on national champions.
Stay tuned tomorrow to read my next article to see how I think that this can be achieved