Amid the chaos of Australian Super Rugby teams scoring two wins from 25 matches against their Kiwi counterparts in the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman series and the subsequent vulnerability to injuries in key positions of the Wallabies squad exposed in the lead-up to the first Test against the French this July, I have become compelled enough to pump out another article.
As the years have dragged on and my fellow Aussies and I have had to endure increasing heartache at the success of our Super Rugby teams, debate has raged on as rugby administrators and armchair critics alike around the country are eager to point out what’s right and wrong about the current format of the competition and consequently if and how it should be modified.
Thoughtful and valid criticisms have arisen on topics such as the structure of the competition and the teams that may participate in it.
Despite this, I don’t really think there has or will be a right answer, and usually two opposing viewpoints can actually be correct in their own right on this matter.
From an Australian perspective our teams have performed poorly compared to their competitors due to the dilution of talent across arguably more teams than the nation’s pathways are able to adequately support. However, as many have pointed out, the removal of some of these teams in favour of improved performances from the remaining teams with more consolidated rosters would come at the cost of a supporter base and professional pathway in the regions that lost their teams.
But modern sport is as much a business and career pathway today as it is a hobby and social cause for everyday folk around the world, and hence the marketability and value of a team and competition are pivotal to the sport’s ability to sustain itself and to grow. If Australia were to lose some of its Super Rugby teams, the success of the remaining teams could garner improved interest in the game and therefore greater broadcast viewings and stadium attendance figures.
Would the resulting profits offset the short term loss of the removal of teams in the first place and allow the game to afford to rebuild pathways and teams in these areas more sustainably in the future?
Furthermore, I believe that considerations of our Asia-Pacific neighbours are sometimes neglected in these arguments. Australian rugby has had a relationship with New Zealand for decades, and it could be in its best interests to continue to nurture this relationship to secure its relevance in world rugby. However, both Australia and New Zealand could benefit by continuing to build new relationships with nations in the Pacific Islands and Asia during the coming years.
Like any other professional sport, rugby consists of a large body of supporters who for a combination of appreciation for the game and attachment to teams that they support simply want to be able to watch high-quality rugby.
But at the centre of this are a smaller number of people tasked with providing this rugby but who seek financial gain from it. Therefore the desires of these two groups do not always align, which is problematic, as while some fans will happily consume rugby in any form, others will be lost if the product is not up to scratch.
Despite being an Australian fan, my personal interests lie with the growth of the game around the world, which manifests as increasingly competitive World Cup tournaments, the formulation of new competitions and the evolution of our existing competitions to accommodate emerging club and national teams. By expanding the game into new territories the competition becomes more competitive and interesting.
More importantly, however, from a business perspective, it means the game is able to access new markets and grow financially. The financial health of the game and its competitions are what allow it to sustain itself, evolve to meet new demands and ultimately give us the product that we desire as fans.
My belief is that in the landscape of modern sport Super Rugby is an outdated competition that is too rigid to pivot to meet the demands of its fans and to access new markets. I propose that Super Rugby is removed completely. In its place Australia, New Zealand and Japan should play their domestic competitions – the NRC, NPC and Top League respectively – before playing crossover matches in a combined competition.
I would prefer if the Pacific Islands were incorporated into this competition and supplied teams in any capacity they could sustain, either to form their own domestic competition or participate in the Australian or New Zealand competitions similarly to the Papua New Guinea Hunters playing in the Queensland rugby league competition.
Let me clarify the weaknesses of Super Rugby in its current form. The competition has become increasingly unbalanced over the years, with Kiwi Super Rugby sides outperforming their competition immensely. In Australia the consequences are a decline in domestic interest in the competition, leading to less revenue for the game and therefore a lack of resources for the clubs to produce and support players of adequate ability, continuing the downward spiral of Australian teams.
This may sound selfish from an Aussie perspective, but this is to the detriment of the competition from a Kiwi perspective as well, as fixtures against less competitive Australian sides are not as marketable and therefore not as profitable. They are simply not as engaging for the audience.
With respective populations of 25 million and five million, Australia and New Zealand, despite being Tier 1 nations in world rugby, are relatively small markets and have meagre earnings capacity for rugby competition together, let alone individually. They need to work with their Asia-Pacific neighbours to thrive together, notably Japan with its population of 126 million.
My proposed competition will allow for greater profits by expanding the market horizon, allowing the participating nations to pay their players bigger contracts and produce a higher quality product to stimulate the growth of their fan-bases.
Without Super Rugby occupying a large portion of the rugby calendar, Australia, New Zealand and Japan will be able to focus more on their domestic competitions, which in the case of New Zealand and Japan are comparatively successful.
New Zealand’s National Provincial Championship features 14 teams in two divisions that play a short six-week season. The NPC is a strong pathway for many of not only New Zealand’s but the world’s playing and coaching talent. While the presence of Super Rugby sides in major cities has caused declining crowds in these areas, the injection of many All Blacks and Super Rugby players back into the NPC during the COVID-19-impacted year of 2020 corresponded with a resurgence in national interest in the competition.
The Japanese Top League features 16 teams that play a long competition culminating in a finals series. Clubs are owned by large companies such as Panasonic, Sony and Toshiba and have the financial capacity to pay top local and imported players exorbitant salaries. The broadcasting of its games on Stan Sport and its signing of some of Australia and New Zealand’s top players, including Michael Hooper and Beauden Barrett, has led to increased interest in the competition outside of Japan.
Australia’s NRC, on the other hand, has seen mixed results since its inception in 2014. The competition was responsible for providing a pathway for some of Australia’s best talent over the course of its history but has struggled to settle on its identity amid a competitive Australian football market and was chopped and changed from year to year in structure, participating teams and even rules. Casual fans found the competition itself and its teams confusing, and it essentially became a product for the purists of Australian rugby.
Super Rugby is the premier southern hemisphere Rugby competition, but I believe that if it were removed, it would lead to a resurgence in the NPC, Top League and NRC. If the resources, including players and finances, could be wholly allocated to these competitions instead of Super Rugby, the best Super Rugby players would be spread throughout each of these teams. If Super Rugby were removed and these competitions became the new top rugby competitions, they would be followed far more.
Of course Australia and Japan in particular desire competition against other countries’ teams to improve and remain competitive themselves. This is why, after the conclusion of domestic competitions, which would need to roughly coincide, the teams would be amalgamated into a crossover tournament of several tiers culminating in a final series. Promotion and relegation between tiers would occur between seasons to ensure the best teams from each nation were in the top tier against each other.
I made the point about Super Rugby being incredibly rigid. Its structure makes it difficult to adapt to include new teams from emerging rugby nations such as Samoa, Tonga and Fiji and even new teams from Australia or Japan in the Pacific region. A multi-tiered crossover structure would allow new clubs to enter the competition and be competitive initially in a second or third tier with the opportunity to improve and progress to the first tier.
Speaking of the islands, the competition allows for the Pacific Islands to introduce teams more easily than the current format. The initial domestic phase simulates a conference system but in a far more intuitive way. With the Pacific Islands presumably providing a smaller number of teams, they would be able to play a local competition among themselves or join one of the other competitions, such as in Australia, where we have only seven NRC teams.
The level of competition would moderate itself. In the current model it is inappropriate that New Zealand, a nation with far more talent than Australia, fields the same number of Super Rugby teams as us. But at the same time I don’t believe that Australia should undo the hard work it has done in Victoria and Western Australia by removing the Rebels and Force from the competition.
In my model new teams introduced domestically that may be weaker can participate in the crossover matches in a lower tier.
I understand the implications of the tier system for the teams in lower tiers; it may be that the fixtures in lower tiers are not profitable enough to run. If this were the case, crossover matches should only occur between the top teams from each country who would have formed the top tier.
If there are 14 Kiwi NPC teams, 16 Japanese Top League teams, seven Australian NRC teams and a team each from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga for a total of 40 teams across all conferences, a hypothetical top tier of ten teams may include four Kiwi teams, three Australian teams, two Japanese teams and one team from the Pacific Islands.
I have taken considerable inspiration from European rugby in the development of this concept. Three separate conferences in England, France and a combined conference of Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Italy and South Africa play among themselves before culminating in a tournament between the best from each conference in the European Champions Cup.
As an Australian fan, I can say that the quality of rugby and the relevance on the international stage of this competition is certainly superior to the southern hemisphere alternative in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
From an Australian perspective I believe that the NRC is a more appropriate domestic competition. While in many cases less is certainly more, the NRC incorporated at least seven local teams throughout its history, which makes for a more engaging Australian competition compared to the current Super Rugby AU, which has only five teams.
Am aspect of the NRC that gives it a huge edge over other football codes is the representation of New South Wales and Queensland country sides in their own teams. While geographically each of these areas has a much smaller population than their state’s capital city, they are also important rugby catchments that don’t have any major competitive sporting team presence.
They therefore represent great opportunities for Rugby Australia to invest in to establish stronger academies to retain our precious regional talent and service the swathes of fans who live a flight away from a Super Rugby home game in Brisbane or Sydney.
I would like to briefly point out that this competition structure naturally helps to facilitate the eventual inclusion of Japan as World Rugby’s newest Tier 1 nation and the underprivileged national sides of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga into the Rugby Championship. The participation of clubs from these nations in domestic conferences and Pacific Nations cross-conference playoffs would help the under-resourced Island nations consolidate their talent and be better prepared for the Test season.
Ultimately this competition model allows a domestic competition to flourish in Australia, New Zealand and Japan while also facilitating a competitive competition featuring clubs from all countries in the Pacific. Of course the aim to facilitate a competitive competition between the best teams in the pacific taps into a larger audience market, including the large Japanese market, which will become increasingly vital moving forward as a sport.
The modularity of the competition allows each country to implement its most appropriate domestic competition to not only sustain but also grow its local talent pool while supplying the best of its teams to a Champions Cup-style crossover tournament to recapture the elite level of the Super 10 and Super 12 competitions of old.