If Australian rugby is to grow revenue and participation, beyond the resident New Zealanders, it must win the hearts and minds of 25 million Australians.
In order to do that, whether we like it or not, we must commit to developing national domestic rugby competitions, like Super Rugby AU.
If we want more of our fellow 25 million Australians following and playing rugby, and paying for Stan subscriptions, we must have a domestic rugby tournament to rival the NRL, AFL, and A-League – with internationals the icing on the cake.
Naturally, the players and coaches want to test themselves against the best international competition. That’s a valid argument why Super Rugby Trans-Tasman should continue in some form.
But this doesn’t need to be an either or argument, we should have both Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, but in what ratios? That is the question.
I’m alarmed when I hear rugby’s stakeholders say we should play less Super Rugby AU in 2022, and more Super Rugby Trans-Tasman. I’m not sure how they arrived at this conclusion, which doesn’t follow logically from the evidence.
The facts of the matter are Super Rugby AU was a huge success. Ratings were up, crowds were up. The negative Aussie rugby vibe turned suddenly positive simply because of the format: an Australian team wins every game, and wins the tournament.
Australian rugby was unexpectedly on the up because of Super Rugby AU, and this raised the real prospect for rugby growing into its domestic audience of 25 million. Isn’t it illogical to conclude we should play less Super Rugby AU in 2022?
On the other hand Super Rugby Trans-Tasman started with a high expectations, good crowds and TV audiences. But Australian teams have won only two and lost 18. All five Aussie franchises were out of final contention after Week 1.
The longer Super Rugby Trans-Tasman has gone on, interest has dwindled, TV audiences changed channels, and the media sentiment turned negative again.
Evidence would suggest if you are trying to continue revitalising Australian rugby by growing participation and revenue, you should increase the amount of Super Rugby AU in 2022, and reconsider the stated intention to double the amount of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
I’m not convinced that New Zealander Dave Rennie’s advocacy for week in, week out Super Rugby Trans-Tasman will deliver the right solution for Australian rugby’s woes. We effectively had that, from 1996-2019, and our game was dying because of it.
Let’s not forget we tried week in week out Super Rugby already. It didn’t work.
However, from a high performance perspective we do need to find a higher level of competition, I understand the requirement.
In the long run though, wouldn’t it be great if that high level of competition could be achieved domestically, so there isn’t a huge mismatch when we start playing international competitions. Shouldn’t this be our goal?
So, where to for our domestic rugby?
At the beginning of 2020 RA had no intention of retaining Super Rugby AU beyond the pandemic. Now, the marketplace has spoken, and some format of Super Rugby AU will be retained long term. RA has got the message. Finally. And Brad Thorn is among those calling for a revival of NRC. I see merit in that too.
If we step back from the details of any domestic competition, we are probably all in agreement that Aussie rugby would benefit from strong domestic national rugby competitions at some level or other?
If so, RA could adopt some agile thinking, and make incremental changes each year to work towards getting the ideal national competitions set up, to strengthen our domestic play, whatever level these national competitions are played at: schools, clubs, NRC districts, or states and territories.
As an example of incremental improvement, in 2022, in line with the evidence of what works, RA could increase the amount of Super Rugby AU played by going up to six teams (adding Fijian Drua or Western Sydney or NSW Country or another team). That would deliver three games each weekend – great for TV. And if we introduce a four-team finals series, there will still be plenty of time for a high performance calibration, be it Super Rugby Trans-Tasman or a champions tournament.
Where to for Super Rugby Trans-Tasman?
Doubling the amount of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman games in 2022, and having only one final match again, is a mistake because we increase the risk our game will become demoralised by suffering defeats for months on end, and have no Aussie team play in the final, again.
As a result, it’s likely Aussie fans could opt to watch league or AFL to get their fill of Australian sporting victory, thus undermining RA’s long-term financial proposition. However, there are alternate tournament formats worth exploring.
Recently, on social media, several Aussie fans have started to suggest a pools format for Super Rugby Trans-Tasman 2022.
Pools offer a good compromise – a middle ground – that reduces the potential for Australian rugby’s positivity to be beaten down again.
Let’s say, with the addition of Drua and Moana Pasifika, there are 12 teams in next year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman. Consider the options of four pools of three, or two pools of six, with home-and-away played in each pool.
Pool play could keep every stakeholder reasonably happy in 2022, including the players and coaches who want more opportunities to calibrate their performances against New Zealand opposition, without committing to doubling the amount of games, and risking months of heartache for supporters and cancelled Stan subscriptions.
A Super Rugby Trans-Tasman pools format is more likely to keep the ratings up and the broadcasters happy.
If the format is successful, in subsequent years, you could increase to 16 teams with the addition of Japanese clubs, or others, and options for four pools of four, or two pools of eight.
Either way, I advocate for an eight-team Super Rugby Trans-Tasman finals series next year rather than a two-team final like we have this year. Why?
It’s important for Aussie fans and players to experience the intensity of sudden death rugby as we build towards the World Cup. Having a one-game final in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman is not good. It doesn’t deliver Australian rugby players the exposure they need to sudden death footy.
The New Zealanders don’t like scheduling finals for some unknown reason. What is wrong with them?
In the first year of Super Rugby Aotearoa, 2020, they didn’t even have a final, whereas Super Rugby AU has had two finals matches. NZ reluctantly added one final to Super Rugby Aotearoa this year, and there’s only one final in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
Let’s not kowtow to the New Zealanders’ desires. Let’s control what we can by increasing to a four-team finals series for Super Rugby AU and pressure the New Zealanders to increase the number of finals matches played in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman 2022 to include eight teams.
It will keep Australian interest in the tournament alive longer too.
If you haven’t noticed already, the pools and eight-team finals series idea is a mini-World Cup format.
The enormous success of the Rugby World Cup delivers us a proven tournament format, which we could replicate, if we want to. No one is stopping us.
If I am a broadcaster, I want a high ratio of sudden death finals games to round robin too, like the World Cup, because knock-out finals make great TV viewing.
And in terms of high-performance, what better way to prepare our players for the World Cup than by replicating the tournament format in our regional competitions?
How about it?