New Zealand and Australia’s localised Super Rugby competitions have been widely-regarded as great successes but everything that the governing bodies have learned from the last seven weeks could be thrown out the window next year if the two competitions are merged together to create one trans-Tasman winner-takes-all.
It’s probably fair to say that never in New Zealand’s history has there been a high-level rugby club competition worth tuning into every match for. The century-old provincial competition will always have its fans but even in its heydays, there were still only a small handful of high-quality, evenly matched games per round. Super Rugby, meanwhile, was considerably more competitive back in 1996 than in 2019, but few Kiwis would be raising themselves out of bed to watch some of the games in South Africa – especially if there were no New Zealand teams involved.
That’s changed this year, thanks to Super Rugby Aotearoa. Despite the fact that the Crusaders will likely seal the championship a week early with a win over the Highlanders on Sunday, that hasn’t detracted from the intensity of matches. The Crusaders may have won all but one of their games, but their most recent win over the Chiefs was the first time they’d had a game sewn up before the final 10 minutes.
Although it took a little while for the teams to suss out the new breakdown interpretations and other law changes (a number of which seemed to have been forgotten about by players and referees alike in the last weeks), every game has also been of a high quality, with exciting head-to-heads on offer every round – both in terms of teams and in terms of players.
Unsurprisingly, viewership has been through the roof. The opening weeks of the competition saw a greater than 90% increase in viewership compared to the regular season while near the middle of the tournament, that figure still sat at over 70%.
It’s been a similar story in Australia.
While the Western Force have understandably struggled to maintain 80-minute performances to date, they’ve only really been blown out of the water once, against the Brumbies. That same week, the Waratahs were humbled by the Rebels – but every other round has brought tense affairs with matches often decided in the final minutes of the game.
One Australian scribe even went so far as to suggest that the Australian competition has been more evenly matched than what’s been going on in New Zealand. That’s technically true – the median margin in a Super Rugby AU match is 6.5, compared to 7 in an Aotearoa game.
Whichever way you look at it, however, the matches being played right now are considerably more tightly fought than what we saw in the earlier part of the year.
The biggest win in the collective 26 matches played of Aotearoa and AU so far was the Brumbies’ 24-0 whitewashing of the Force. In the seven rounds of Super Rugby that were able to be played before the global pandemic put a stop to proceedings, 11 matches resulted in bigger blowouts. The median margin was 14 points – twice as large as what we’re now seeing in the local competitions.
Next year, of course, we still don’t know what form Super Rugby is going to take. South Africa and Argentina are almost certainly out of the equation and New Zealand Rugby and Australia Rugby both seem to have different takes on what would be best for the game going forward.
NZR, having seen the benefits of a closely fought 5-team tournament, appear uninterested in combining Super Rugby Aotearoa with Super Rugby AU to form one 10-team competition where we would likely see the blowouts return.
Instead, they’re rumoured to be looking at three options – two of which include four Australian teams and one Pacific Islands side, and one which would limit Australia to a paltry two teams.
RA, on the other hand, don’t want to consign any of their teams to the scrapheap, having only reinstated the Western Force for Super Rugby AU.
Both unions are stuck between a rock and hard place. Despite what former Wallaby and current FOX commentator Rod Kafer might think, the Australian teams are not “playing well enough to give any [team] in NZ a run for their money” and a competition made up of the five current teams from both nations would once again end up lopsided.
"Our teams are playing well enough to give any in NZ a run for their money"
— FOX SPORTS News (@FOXSportsNews) August 3, 2020
The best Australian side, on a good night, might be able to put pressure on the New Zealand teams, which means a one-off trans-Tasman final could be a worthwhile option to ensure there’s still (admittedly limited) interaction between the neighbouring countries. To add a bit of extra fire to that game, the NZ teams, seeded from first to last, could all battle it out with the correspondingly ranked Australian sides – but the rarity of the occasion would be what really attracts the viewers, not necessarily any deep-seated interest in seeing trans-Tasman matches on the regular.
That, however, doesn’t appear to be one of the options on the table from NZR’s point of view. While RA have indicated they would potentially rather go it on their own instead of bending to New Zealand’s will of culling sides, there’s certainly evidence to suggest that a game involving two nations is likely to attract better viewer numbers than a game involving just one nation – providing that the quality is still up to standard.
While Super Rugby Aotearoa matches are fairing fine in Australian markets compared to the standard Super Rugby game, the AU competition is still attracting greater viewership, which suggests that objectively higher standard of play (if you are to assume that five teams from a World Cup semi-finalist who beat the eventual champions would have higher standards than five teams from a country that struggled to make it out of the pool stages) doesn’t necessarily equate to better engagement.
It’s a tough conundrum with no obviously correct answer – but merging two successful competitions is obviously the incorrect decision. When the games are tightly fought and the rivalries are primal, sport is simply better entertainment. The global pandemic has forced a re-think and while the game has taken a massive financial hit, there’s also now an opportunity to restructure rugby in New Zealand and Australia to create a better future.
Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU have been roaring successes for their respective nations but when the borders reopen, the plan cannot simply be to combine the two even competitions.
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