At the halfway point of Super Rugby Aotearoa, the makeshift competition has to be considered a resounding success.
New Zealand crowds are back, the ratings are sky high and the interest in the Southern Hemisphere is on the up again.
However, during this period of time, New Zealand Rugby must seriously take the learnings from the relative success of Super Rugby Aotearoa, as the long-term outlook is still not as rosy and much needs to be done to fix the game here.
Michael Jordan, at the peak of his career as the world’s most prominent athlete, fronted the press media every night after NBA games, week in week out without fail, with class and poise.
Five weeks into Super Rugby Aotearoa, with the world’s rugby spotlight firmly on New Zealand, Beauden Barrett and many other Blues stars are ‘off limits’ to press.
You couldn’t make up a better way to self-sabotage yourself and fail to capitalise on the opportunity right now.
If Super Rugby Aotearoa is to ever become a stand-alone competition or command the global attention to make it a valuable proposition, it needs every bit of effort to succeed.
Things need to be done differently to before. Remember that flailing competition with diving interest? Yeah, that was Super Rugby.
Surely, with the clouds surrounding the financial future of the game in the Southern Hemisphere and the uncertainty around international travel, don’t you want to do everything possible to build a potential domestic product that commands the biggest global audience, and therefore commercial value, as possible?
It seems not.
They should be holding press conferences every week with the biggest names, feeding the media to sell this great competition.
That is, in fact, what every press conference is for, to sell the game, which seems lost on rugby administrators and players that don’t want to make a stir.
One quote that makes a headline that drums up interest in a clash will sell more tickets and create more eyeballs than any paid advertising could.
How about the teams get together and create faux drama? Instead of squabbling with the media like they are the rivals, do it with the teams you actually play on the field?
You see, it doesn’t matter how good the on-field rugby is.
If everything else around it lacks emotion, lacks meaning, there is no story to tell. There are no rivalries with substance. Fans need villains as much as they need heroes, which is what Beauden Barrett became by ditching the Hurricanes to play for the Blues.
His first game against his old team? A sell-out. The game needs theatre, as only Eddie Jones seems to understand.
Under Jones, England have made the Six Nations a far superior rugby spectacle, which, by the way, is worth a hell of a lot more than the Rugby Championship, despite having inferior teams to the All Blacks and Springboks involved.
It’s not about the quality of the on-field play, it’s also everything around it which is what administrators down here don’t get.
England are the most watchable team on the planet right now because they are the villains, to most, and every opposition fan cares about beating them because they don’t like them.
Some of the official social media promotion of Super Rugby Aotearoa has been about how the players are great mates, sharing a laugh on the field moments after a clash.
You couldn’t come up with worse content to kill any meaning behind these games.
This is extremely damaging to this competition to try to push false ‘rugby values’ propaganda that, quite frankly, doesn’t exist.
Do you think Michael Jordan would share a laugh with his opponents on the court directly after losing an NBA game?
I can’t imagine so. Particularly not with the season on the line, which is applicable every week with the condensed Super Rugby Aotearoa. It meant too much to him. It was personal.
Did it harm Michael Jordan not being a nice guy, not having an ‘aw shucks’ persona? No, it didn’t, it only made him the most valuable athlete in the world and the first billionaire sportsperson.
And that is the crux of the problem.
If the perception is that you don’t take it seriously and losing doesn’t mean anything, don’t expect the fans to care either. That is the perception being pushed by those in charge of running the competition.
We get the players are mates, but the game would be far better off if they acted like they weren’t. Or at least, don’t use that as promotional material to make fans perceive that.
Like it or not, Owen Farrell has become the biggest name in rugby, and unknown to most, the most valuable player. It’s not Beauden Barrett or Siya Kolisi. Owen Farrell is the most valuable player in the game purely as he drives ratings.
His competitive drive is wired the same way as Jordan, but he has lost control of his persona because he simply doesn’t care what you think anyway.
If you are in his way of winning, you need to be removed. He is authentically raw on the pitch, and it rubs people the wrong way with his visible displays on the field.
He also doesn’t need to worry about making friends with the opposition as it seems he’s never leaving Saracens, and he can’t play against England.
He is authentic and unapologetic about it, which has made him the most compelling player of this generation. He doesn’t even need to talk to the press to hype a game because he is so unreserved on the pitch it creates a frenzy with fans. People want to see him fail, and all he wants to do is win.
The Lions tour of South Africa will be the most talked-about rugby event next year, in large part thanks to Owen Farrell and the dislike towards him by a large portion of fans and his recently history against the Springboks. It’s going to be a box office-level spectacle and the most anticipated rugby games across the globe.
For New Zealand’s players, the reason they have to be this way, assumably, is for harmony within the All Blacks squad. That’s the other part of this broken thinking.
Everything is secondary, and treated as such, to the All Blacks, which means that nothing else can grow in its own right and the dependency on the international game is too much.
The North Island vs South Island clash could be a State of Origin-like spectacle. With time, with history, as the chapters are written with emotion-filled clashes that provide the backstory in the public memory.
It could be – but it won’t be. They have already killed that possibility.
It is seen to serve the needs of the All Blacks. It’s been made a trial match to please the selectors, with the selection rules manufactured to try create an ‘even’ match.
Jordie Barrett, raised in the Taranaki, will have to play for the South Island. Damian McKenzie, from Invercargill and schooled in Christchurch, will have to play for the North.
Already it has no authenticity and yet you cannot tell me that All Black selections will be decided by the performances in this game.
If they are, Sam Cane should be prepared to give up the captain’s badge because he might not make the starting team, such is the current form of the other loose forwards in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
We all know that isn’t going to happen, so why would you kill the potential future for this clash by taking away authenticity?
It doesn’t matter if the North smashes the South as each player representing the South is doing so out of pride, with something more meaningful attached.
The North vs South series or match needs to be solely about itself. That’s all. It’s not about trialling combinations or furthering All Black selections.
Only then, when it is the end, not the means to the end, will it become an authentic competition that has any value and become a pinnacle event.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a three-match domestic series each year that commands as much attention as an actual test series?
That is the same thinking required with Super Rugby and, by extension, Super Rugby Aotearoa.
It needs to be the be-all and end-all. Not a playground where All Blacks are rested, rotated or sent off to play in other competitions where they can earn good money.
When it is treated as such, you may find it increases in value, and that you don’t need the Northern Hemisphere to solve all your financial problems.
That is why it is pertinent that it is treated as highly as a test match, with as much promotion as possible, using the biggest names to do so.
There is a mainly domestic competition in a similar sport, played by clubs, that has no real international games, sitting in the Southern Hemisphere landscape playing in the same market as New Zealand Rugby.
It is called the NRL, and they pull in billions for their long-term domestic rights deals, similar figures – if not more – than what rugby does, and they don’t need the Northern Hemisphere or South Africa to do so.
That is a position of strength, not weakness. And the NRL is in the one market down here in the Southern Hemisphere – the one being bashed publicly, Australia – that has the market size to make something sustainable and self-sufficient.
New Zealand has the player & coaching depth to make all the franchises across the Trans-Tasman strong. Australia has the sports market to make it viable if they can work together to grow an entertaining product, like the NRL has.
They can lead the Asia-Pacific region in building a proper professional league if they thought about it things differently.
So, it can be done. It just needs far a better strategic vision than currently in play.
Super Rugby Aotearoa is the building block through which the Southern Hemisphere can become self-sufficient if all options are on the table, yet greater thinking is required to get there.
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