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Australia the big winners in curious new Super Rugby deal

By Tom Vinicombe
(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Not much more than two years ago, an indepent review commissioned by New Zealand Rugby determined that a Super Rugby replacement competition involving five sides from New Zealand and up to three from Australia was the best way forward for the game in NZ.

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When push came to shove, however, the findings from the Aratipu report were effectively ignored.

Rugby Australia, unsurprisingly, weren’t too happy with the findings and insisted that if they were to be involved in any competition with New Zealand, they certainly wouldn’t be cutting any of their sides.

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Super Rugby Pacific was eventually conceived a few months later and lo and behold, all five Australian franchises were included – alongside five from NZ and two to represent the Pacific Islands.

The tournament kicked off to much (internal) fanfair earlier this year but ultimately failed to live up to the hype, with the New Zealand sides once again dominating the competition and the Australia teams falling short of the mark.

The Brumbies, Waratahs and Reds all featured in the knockout stages of the tournament, with eight of the 12 participants progressing through to the finals, but managed just eight wins over their trans-Tasman opposition throughout the entirety of the competition.

Some from Australia suggested that represented an improvement in their teams’ performances after a disastrous 2020 but the fact remains that in most instances, games between NZ and Australian sides followed a rather predictable formula, and nothing kills interest in a sport faster than predictability.

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Yet, not content with having more seats at the table than they deserved on merit, the powers that be in Australia have also felt justified in criticising the current revenue model which has significantly favoured NZ.

Of course, NZR and RA negotiated their own deals with their local broadcasters. While Sky were willing to pay approximately $100 million per year to operate as the sole broadcaster in New Zealand (a figure which includes Test rugby, Super Rugby and the provincial competition), RA sold their rights for not much more than a third of that amount.

In the past, revenue was shared between NZ, South Africa and Australia but the recent years of disruption due to Covid forced the change and as the NZ sides (whether All Blacks, Blues or Tasman et cetera) unsurprisingly boast more pulling power than their Australian counterparts, NZR came out trumps compared to their brothers across the ditch.

RA haven’t been happy with the separate arrangements, however, and despite all signs indicating that earnings were being distributed fairly between the two unions (or at least as fairly as the market can dictate), they have been demanding more money to go with their increased number of teams in Super Rugby.

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And now, it appears that New Zealand Rugby have caved.

“An agreement has been settled regarding revenue sharing between the parties until the conclusion of the current broadcast deals at the end of 2025,” said the official statement following today’s confirmation of a new eight-year venture between NZR and RA, “with further financial agreements to be determined following the finalisation of future broadcast agreements.

Somehow, almost defying belief, Rugby Australia have been able to fight their way to what seems like a perfect arrangement for the union – even if that won’t result in the best product on the field, or the best outcome for New Zealand.

The question remains whether five teams can be sustained in Australia, both in terms of fan engagement and the player base – and that’s something that NZR CEO Mark Robinson says has been a conversation point between the two unions.

“The sustainability of Australian teams is a question for them really. We’ve had conversations about that and prefer from our perspective to keep those behind closed doors.

“There are sustainability issues right across the game now – they don’t only sit in this part of the world, they sit certainly in the Northern Hemisphere where I’ve been recently – and the challenge for us is to create value and engagement and access into our sport that sees that value grow. And that’s now a really key focus of this competition.”

Robinson also suggested that the establishment of a nine-person board – including an independent chair, four independent Directors, and one representative each from NZR, RA, the New Zealand Rugby Players Association (NZRPA) and the Rugby Union Players’ Association (RUPA) – should ensure the best interests of both countries are catered to, and that’s helped move NZR’s view on the best competition structure when compared with what was suggested in the Aratipu report.

“If I look at what’s different and what’s not so different in this competition construct, I guess what’s different is [we have] a board which is a strong collaboration of national union interests, club interests and player interests sitting across that board that we’ve never had before.

“[It’s] one governance body focusing on what’s good for the fans, what’s good for entertainment, what preserves safety and player welfare all at the same table, all having the same conversation. So that’s incredibly unique and out of that, we hope that it will create a huge amount of long-term value.”

The proof will be in the pudding, however.

The ‘landmark’ eight-year deal will quickly be criticised by fans if the on-field product remains predictable and largely uncompetitive – and that means both NZR and RA will be hoping for a strong showing from the five Australian franchises during next year’s competition.

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