Rugby Australian boss Phil Waugh is adamant speeding up the game and having the ball in play longer is paramount to winning back disillusioned fans.
Waugh is in Auckland for a Super Rugby Pacific interim board meeting with his New Zealand Rugby Union counterpart Mark Robinson, which many might also describe as crisis talks for the ailing code in Australia.
While Super Rugby Pacific interim chair Kevin Molloy rejected the assertion that the competition was “in strife”, the heavyweights of the SANZAR alliance agree they must be proactive to stop the decline in interest.
Molloy said Monday’s meeting was an important “starting point” in which the board brainstormed for hours about how to “reignite the flame” among fans, with boosting “fan engagement” considered an easy fix to help get the competition back on track.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say we’re in strife,” he said.
“But it’s fair to say that we are really cognisant of the fact that we’re not just competing with the powerhouses of the NRL and other major sporting events.
“But we’ve got an entertainment industry out there and it’s tough for people at the moment.
“It’s tough in terms of where they spend their discretionary dollar.”
Waugh is convinced fans need to see the ball in play more and says stoppages must be minimised.
Incredibly, statistics showed that the ball was actually in play for less than half of the 80-minute match times during the 2022 Super Rugby Pacific season.
Improvements were made this year, with less intervention from television match officials (TMOS) but Waugh said even more tweaks were likely to be in store during 2024.
“We’ve been leaders of innovation probably when Super Rugby started (in 1996),” he said.
“It was innovative, it was fast and it was the best provincial competition in the world. We need to get back there.
“If you think about what can we tinker with, interestingly, if I talked about ball in play, it was actually ball out of play. It was stoppage time when really you lose a lot of the consumer engagement.
“So for the fans, how do we actually shorten the ball out of play? Maximise ball in play to actually speed the game up?”
With Australian wins over Kiwi opposition few and far between over the past decade and more, Waugh accepts improvement must be made by the ACT Brumbies, Queensland Reds, NSW Waratahs, Melbourne Rebels and Western Force for the competition’s integrity.
“We know our performances across not just the international game but the Super Rugby performances haven’t been the level they need to be,” he said.
Former RA chairman Hamish McLennan was previously a proponent of a Super Rugby Pacific draft to help create more interest and, perhaps, even up the competition.
Robinson said there was an acceptance that both parties needed to be “open-minded” about ideas that could help breathe life back into the competition, but downplayed the prospect of any radical eligibility changes any time soon.
“I think another key thing that came through today was being open-minded,” Robinson said.
“A key principle around that was competition integrity and balance of performance and results across the competition.
“Certainly, there’s an open-mindedness to considering conversations like that. However, at the moment, we’re also quite clear that our eligibility protocols are very clear and we from time to time have conversations about those and will be willing to do in the future, but we think there are a lot of opportunities that sit there in the competition at the moment that we can focus in on at moment.”
Molloy also conceded even in these tough times that the Australian and New Zealand governing bodies may need to invest more in order to revive interest levels in Super Rugby.
“I think there is a fiscal reality that they are going to have to invest more than what they have invested in the past,” said the interim chair.
Meanwhile, after a change in leadership at RA following McLennan’s ousting as chairman, Robinson tried to downplay any bad blood between the trans-Tasman neighbours.
“There was enough said on both sides of the Tasman back then. We’re moving on. We certainly passed on our regards to Hamish and wished him well at the time of his resignation and we’ve welcomed Dan [Herbert] into the space and we’ll find the right time to spend more time with him as well. Very much focussed on facing forward,” he said.
“We might go through the odd moment, the odd challenge, but there’s a strong Anzac spirit between the countries. It appropriately has its moments of contention, it’s appropriately fierce on the field, but people like Brett Robinson, John Eales, George Gregan, Paul McLean, Mike Hawker, who all served RA with great distinction and now through to Dan and Phil, we have a huge amount of respect for.”
AAP with staff writers