After Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, a question is being asked: what does the future of rugby look like in Australia?
It is not hard to understand why doubts are surfacing after the demolishing 23-2 win ratio in favour of New Zealand. With year-on-year poor performances of Australian teams in Super Rugby, Australia is beginning to wonder what benefits there are by staying with New Zealand.
The truth is, Australia may be better off saying haere ra (goodbye) to Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
Let’s look at the facts. Australian fans want more derbies and less Trans-Tasman matches. This year the Super Rugby AU final between the Reds and Brumbies attracted 400,000 viewers in Australia, one of the highest ratings in Australian rugby for years.
The Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final managed only 75,000 viewers in Australia, which were most likely Kiwi expats. After all, the Blues are the second most supported Super Rugby team in Australia.
More views on television means better-paying broadcasting rights for a cash-strapped Rugby AU. So why seek a less valued antipodean future than an improving domestic one? Surely it’s better to grow the game nationally and improve revenue, rather than watch your teams lose games and viewers week after week.
Last year, Georgia Robinson of the Sydney Morning Herald reported on the findings of the Gemba Group into Australian rugby. The UK-based group has consulted with FIFA, NRL, Tennis Australia, Cricket Australia and Formula One on their commercial and broadcasting rights in Australia. Worryingly, the consultants found some alarming signs based on 15 years of crowd and broadcasting data of Super Rugby.
In Australia, rugby has dropped to the ninth most popular sport, compared to first in New Zealand. Since 2013, spectating has declined by 43 per cent. This raises the issue, what aspiring talent would want to play rugby? No wonder the likes of Angus Crichton, Kayln Ponga and Jaydn Su’A would prefer to have a glitzy NRL career as well as the monetary incentive that union can’t offer.
In conclusion, the consultancy group labelled Super Rugby as a poor investment with 60 per cent of games being low value for Australian broadcasters and of little interest to Australian rugby fans. The Australian derbies were the games that kept food on the table for Rugby AU and what kept Foxtel paying for so long.
So where to now from the end of Super Rugby? The Gemba Group also suggested that Australia should create its own domestic league similar to the English Premiership.
Shute Shield and Queensland Hospital Cup teams, traditionalism, tribalism and private investment would be used to increase rugby’s popularity and broadcast rights. This would then in turn see the current Super Rugby teams become state representative teams, allowing Rugby AU to focus on pathways.
However, with an already established fan-base, it may be more sensible for certain teams to be promoted and relocated to expand Super Rugby AU. Look at the Fitzroy Lions, who moved north to merge with the Brisbane Bears in AFL. Perhaps one day we’ll see the Gold Coast Marlins or the Western Sydney Two Blues.
Expansion would also allow Australia to broaden the player pool and have the chance to keep more players at home, rather than looking for contracts overseas. New Zealand could even start their own competition with the Fijian Drua, Moana Pasifika and perhaps one day in the future the return of the Central Vikings.
Many disagree with Australia going solo. Often the same fallacy is repeated: you’ll only get better by playing the best. Surely then, after 25 years of playing the best, the Australian teams would have been more competitive, but in the past 19 years, Australian teams have become less competitive.
Then there is the Bledisloe, 17 years of losing in a row. Surely Super Rugby isn’t helping Australian players develop, so why keep playing the best if they aren’t helping you to improve? England played New Zealand once between 2015 to 2018, losing only to come back and knock the All Blacks out of the World Cup semis.
While it is most likely best for Australia to go rogue to secure its own future, it may not be the end of the line for Australian teams to play New Zealand teams.
Bernard Laporte and the Japan Rugby Football Union are both wanting a club world cup featuring Australian and New Zealand teams. The Auckland Blues are also in favour of this according to recent reports.
Perhaps even a trophy similar to World Club Challenge contested between the NRL and Super League may emerge one day, where the best from Australia and New Zealand play each other in a series.
Whatever the future may be, one thing is certain: Super Rugby is broken and not viable for Australia. Rugby AU needs to carefully consider all options and choose the one that benefits Australia. That option may just be to stay at home.