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A radical merger for Super Rugby to revive itself

By Ben Smith
Beauden Barrett with Toyota Verblitz and Taufa Funaki of the Blues. (Photos by Hannah Peters/Getty Images and Koki Nagahama/Getty Images)

The revamped Super Rugby Pacific competition, now in its third year, is still trying to capture imagination and relevance post-South Africa split.

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Round six of Super Rugby Pacific featured just four games as many teams hit their routinely scheduled bye weeks.

Of the four scheduled clashes, none were marketable as blockbusters. Two ended up as lopsided thrashings, which aren’t always a bad thing, but crowds weren’t out in force to see them happen.

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With player resting protocols, rotation policies and extended squad sizes, the need for bye weeks is questionable in itself. Particularly when the competition can’t afford to concede air time to the NRL.

Sundays are now exclusively owned by rugby league in Australasia. There aren’t enough fixtures without the bye weeks let alone with them to compete. So the NRL has unbridled territory on a key broadcast day every weekend.

Without change, Super Rugby Pacific is unlikely to recapture the standing it used to have or challenge this new status quo.

The issue is not the talent. There are so many young, dynamic players that should be building hype and excitement for Super Rugby Pacific. There are many of the world’s best players in this competition.

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The sad reality is the stage is too small for them, the marketing and media presence is not big enough. Players are undersold and wrapped up in obscurity. They play in half-empty stadiums without any atmosphere.

Super Rugby as a competition has not figured it out. There is no media hype cycle for it. The overall extent of coverage is magnitudes smaller than it needs to be.

It’s a hard egg to crack now because of the catch-22 between the two. Independent media won’t cover it deeply if it has no public interest, yet it can’t build more interest without more media.

So what is the answer? What strategic move can be made to save the competition from malaise, boost its commercial viability, and start to grow?

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One answer, while acknowledging that it may not be feasible and is completely radical, is a total merger with Japan Rugby League One to create a Super League in the Pacific region.

The 12 Super Rugby Pacific teams combined with 12 League One teams in a 24-team league is a titanic amalgamation that would lean on the strength of the Japanese market.

The Japan Rugby League One made USD$21.7m in revenues in its first season and broke a profit.

It’s unknown what the teams backed by industry titans spent and whether they even cared to be in black with their rugby operation. It’s probably great for rugby that they don’t care.

Could TV rights from a newly formed Super League from the combined home markets of Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific be worth in excess of what the two competitions make separately? Arguably yes. And if that is the case, then a merger could be explored.

The true value of Super Rugby Pacific rights is unknown due to the bundled nature of the current deals. If they were sold as a standalone product outside of the Rugby Championship and international tests it wouldn’t be a surprise to see far less than expected brought in.

The way the broadcast rights deals are currently done, packaged up by SANZAAR partners as a bundled offering of domestic and international competitions all-in-one and sold into their home markets, would have to change.

If it was worth it to unbundle, they would.

This type of competition merger would completely break the current model in order to try and create a much stronger product, which is ultimately what should be desired.

A club competition worth more or near the international game creates power and strength for the owners and more prosperity for players.

Japan as the focal point with half of the teams in the competition would be a shock. But this move would stop fighting the tide and instead go with it.

The player drain from Australasia to Japan is well known. From legendary veterans, to mid-tier players, to young guns that haven’t even debuted, Japan is the destination.

Consider this list of internationals who currently play in Japan; Ardie Savea, Jesse Kriel, Ngani Laumape, Cheslin Kolbe, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick, Richie Mo’unga, Charles Piutau, Israel Folau, Seta Tamanivalu, Quade Cooper, Pablo Matera, Damian de Allende, Marika Koroibete, Malcolm Marx, Liam Williams, Sam Cane, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Faf de Klerk.

When any competition loses these players, not only do the teams suffer, but the competition suffers from the loss of recognisable stars. Keeping stars and well-known names within the competition is integral.

The Japanese teams should be encouraged to sign as many young and old New Zealand and Australian players as possible in a new Super League, while at the same time, the Australasian teams would have more opportunities to tap into the Japanese commercial market for deals.

With frequent broadcast exposure on Japanese television weekly, there is direct incentive for sponsorship investment into Australasian and Pacific teams by Japanese companies.

When national World Cup hero Ayumu Goromaru signed with the Queensland Reds, there were full-time reporters posted in Brisbane to cover his movements all season. The Reds also landed a jersey sponsor deal with a Japanese company. He barely got on the field but the media interest was large.

This opportunity for players and teams alike to swim in a larger pool will make them more recognisable, more marketable and bring in more commercial dollars, or yen in this case.

International eligibility selection laws in Australia and New Zealand would have to expand as a result, All Blacks and Wallabies would have to be selected from anywhere within the Super League.

NZR have been fighting this battle for a decade with work-around rules and sabbaticals. Beauden Barrett will likely play for the All Blacks this year after a full season in Japan, like many others recently. The Wallabies have already tinkered and expanded their rules multiple times. It’s the next step.

An expanded playing field for New Zealand and Australian players only strengthens the base of potential All Blacks and Wallabies. As stars and experienced names head to Japan, more development players come through the home system.

Secondly, how the departed players fare against the new players can be determined directly through competition whereas currently there is no benchmark.

Former New Zealand Super Rugby players like Otere Black, Mitch Hunt, Malo Tuitama, Josh Goodhue, Rob Thompson, and Vince Aso all play in League One. If they were able to reach another level of play, there could be grounds for selection. There are many more Australians.

Within five years a viable free agency could emerge with frequent player movement across the competition driving interest and excitement.

We saw with the Sunwolves that crowds are regular and loyal and despite the lack of wins anytime they played in Tokyo they had sizeable turnouts. League One crowds are company-driven, but still larger than Super Rugby attendances.

Maybe all the division one Japanese clubs wouldn’t make it into a merged league, and the same applies for all of the Australian teams.

But the opportunity exists to keep divisions two and three of the Japanese leagues and allow the Super Rugby development teams and discards to join.

The Highlanders have the Bravehearts, the Hurricanes have the Hunters as development teams. There could be regular games for the rest of the extended New Zealand squads.

The current schedules overlap but don’t fully align with differences in seasons. But there are potential workarounds with early season games scheduled in Japan through January and February. Japanese teams could travel abroad later in the season from March onwards.

But the timezones align to pack each weekend full of fixtures and create a competition big enough to go head-to-head with the NRL.

An eight-team finals series makes sense in a 24-team league. It would make the regular season race meaningful, something missing in Super Rugby Pacific. Promotion and regulation is an option and adds intrigue at the other end.

This mega-merger would not be easy to get through, but the rewards on the other side could be worth it for a fledging Super Rugby competition.

Nothing stays still. If it’s not growing, it’s shrinking. It’s hard to argue Super Rugby hasn’t shrunk in relevance. It’s conceivable that Super Rugby ends up like the NPC over the next decade.

That is a place that no professional sport wants to be.

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