The current, widespread suspension of rugby across the globe is forcing a massive re-think of how the game is administered, organised and played and New Zealand Rugby must be seriously considering going it alone in the future.
Super Rugby in its current form is coming to an end. The Sunwolves will be culled from 2021 and may have already played their last match.
Instead of the broken, somewhat confusing and entirely unfair set-up of the current conference system, Super Rugby will be reverting to a round-robin format.
There will still be fairness issues, no doubt; it’s hard to envisage that SANZAAR will stop the top ranked nation from each country progressing through to the finals because that would harm the ever-important viewership figures.
But even ignoring that, there’s a considerably greater problem at hand: the audience just don’t like Super Rugby.
Cross-country competitions work incredibly well when it’s the best of the best on display. The Heineken Cup and football’s Champion’s Cup are so popular not just because they’re European wide competitions but because teams actually have to regularly prove they belong in those competitions. That’s rarely been true for Super Rugby.
Super Rugby is no Southern Hemisphere Heineken Cup, as some folks will suggest. That may have been the case when the competition first kicked off in 1996 and the three original SANZAR nations were arguably the top three nations in the world, but now South Africa, New Zealand and Australia have as many of their players turning out for foreign clubs as they do for their local sides and the Wallabies in particular are a shadow of their former selves.
If you want to compare competitions from the two Hemispheres then Super Rugby is much more akin to the Pro14, a tournament which incorporates five nations in an unusual conference format where the end result is inevitably that an Irish team will finish with the trophy.
Sound familiar to any Southern Hemisphere purists?
The Pro14 holds some significance, especially for the teams that don’t have a place in the Heineken Cup, primarily because it’s the only professional non-international rugby on offer in a calendar year. For a team like Leinster, however, who regularly rest their top players in order to keep them fresh for the considerably more illustrious Heineken’s Cup, the Pro14 is simply a sidequest.
Back to New Zealand and it’s easy to see why Super Rugby is losing it’s appeal, except when two Kiwi sides face off.
That’s not necessarily because the skills are better and the rugby itself is of a higher quality in those fixtures – though that certainly comes into it.
It’s simply because the players are more recognisable and familiar and viewers actually care about their success.
There’s also the major factor that almost every player on display in a New Zealand derby is a potential All Black – and that’s what the viewers want to see; All Blacks.
It’s a powerful brand, that silver fern – the most powerful brand in world rugby, in fact. There’s a reason why NZR are so keen to slap the All Blacks moniker on every New Zealand rugby team.
Super Rugby has been heading downhill for a long time with New Zealand’s domination evident for everyone to see and now is the time to kick things up.
Conveniently, New Zealand’s provincial competition has also lost its shine in recent years, which creates a serious opportunity for NZR if they’re willing to take a risk.
If Super Rugby and the Mitre 10 Cup on both thrown on the scrap heap, New Zealand could produce the greatest domestic rugby competition in the world – one that cannot just rival but best England’s Gallagher Premiership and France’s Top 14.
As it currently stands, there are plenty of talented Kiwi players that are either forced to sit on a Super Rugby bench every week or head to other countries for game-time – players that would more than match-up to many of the men who are propping up some of the Australia and South African franchises.
The Mitre 10 Cup, which boasts 14 teams, probably stretches New Zealand’s talent a little too far. There’s a fine medium that could be found between the 14 provinces and the five Super Rugby franchises that would allow for a competitive competition that would provide enough variety, rivalry and tribalism for all to enjoy.
Merging provinces has had mixed results in the past. It’s gone very well for Tasman, who were formed by an alliance between two second division sides, Nelson Bays and Marlborough, and are now a powerhouse in the provincial game.
Back in the 90’s, it didn’t work so well off the field for Hawke’s Bay and Manawatu when they were merged into the Central Vikings with financial issues eventually causing the side to split, but better planning and professionalism could likely solve that problem in the current day.
The major problem with this, of course, is the money factor. South Africa and Australia both have populations dwarfing New Zealand. Even if rugby isn’t quite as popular in either of those countries, the number of viewers far exceed those in NZ, particularly in South Africa, which is why the NZR are so keen to have them involved in some form or another.
But that’s overlooking the fact that a premier provincial club competition is considerably more marketable on a world scale than the current Super Rugby product.
If NZR can take their new product to America, Asia or Europe and illustrate that the rugby is of the highest quality and the All Blacks are on display in almost every fixture (especially if we’re taking the wider definition of the brand and including sevens players and B-team members), then the audience for the competition is actually significantly larger than Super Rugby’s.
It also opens the door for other complementary events such as the much-discussed North Island v South Island clash, a game between New Zealand’s Possibles and Probables, and a few one-off matches against Australian and South African teams.
It’s desperate times around the world right now and that’s forced rugby unions to start re-thinking their strategies. New Zealand Rugby could do a lot worse than focussing on their own backyard and reinvigorating the provincial game.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now