May 2015

At the conclusion of the 2014 S15 season I posted an article title “Where To Now Super Rugby” in which I set out some of my concerns regarding the future of Super Rugby.

Where To Now Super Rugby?

The 2014 season is over, and it is time to take stock of Super Rugby and where this much-hyped competition is going.

I have come to the sad conclusion that the Super Rugby Series has steadily deteriorated into a competition with little to get really excited about.   Super Rugby has become an exercise in endurance, a week-by-week slog to avoid injury and to win at all costs. Teams, players, coaches and their supporters need to have enormous will power and determination to stay focused and enthusiastic.

The Super Series was first conceived as the Super 6 that did not include South African teams, and then came the 1993 version, called the Super 10, that added South Africans to the mix. In 1996 SANZAR was formed, and the Super competition was expanded into the Super 12. Five New Zealand franchises, four from South Africa, and three from Australia.

When that first game kicked off back in 1996 it was the start of a hugely exciting competition. 12 teams, each playing 5 or 6 home games and five or six away, and a need for intensity and focus that made every game a derby. If you lost two games on the trot you found yourself playing catch-up rugby and you’re chances for a spot in the final rapidly disappearing over the horizon.

This was a competition that could only be won by the best. Innovation was critical, new tactics, new strategies, and new thinking were paramount. If you did not improve with every game, you were not going to win this competition.

The winners had to be different. They had to take chances and try new things. Remember the Blues and their “devil-take-the-hindmost” approach? They developed the strategy that all they had to do was score more tries than the opposition and they would win. It was different, and it was spectacular. And the Blues won, game after game.

Competition bred innovation and emerging talent felt the need to make a statement fast. The intensity of the rugby, the quality of the rugby and the innovative methods of the teams were the measure by which the competition was measured.

Those were truly exciting times.

From a commercial perspective this was a really good product, and the worldwide popularity of the Super Series grew by leaps and bounds. Some mealy-mouthed English rugby commentators were hugely critical of the product, calling it “powder-puff” and “fancy pants” rugby, until their local test teams came up against southern hemisphere teams and were completely blown away by the skill and intensity of the rugby on offer.

This game was so popular that SANZAR were able to sell the series to News Corporation for US$555 Million for a 10 year contract – an awful lot of money in those distant times.

Flush with the success of Super 12 rugby and the financial strength the News Corporation contract gave SANZAR the future looked rosy.

Then the home unions started to squabble about their share of the pie – Suddenly South Africa and Australia also wanted more teams in the competition. If New Zealand could have 5, then SA wanted 5 (or 6 if Cheeky Watson was involved) and Australia wanted 5 too.

In 2004 a new deal was signed with News Corporation and South Africa’s SuperSport, and the Super 14 was born. Now worth US$323 Million over 5 years, the contracts included the Tri-Nations series.

South Africa and Australia each got an additional team in the competition, which retained the single table format. The Tri-Nations Test Series was expanded to a third round.

And the writing was on the wall, if anybody cared to read it!

From just enough rugby, suddenly there was just a little too much.

This was still not enough for the administrators, and in 2011 we saw the birth of the Super 15 competition.

A new structure was invented with all manner of local derbies and some teams not meeting others during the entire competition. Each team only played four of the teams from each of the other countries, and played each of the teams from their own country twice – a total of 16 games without playoffs or semi-finals and finals. A bugger’s muddle where international strength is no longer measured against international strength, but rather internally against your own country’s other competitors.

It was never going to work, and it does not.

To make matters worse, the top team in each country automatically qualifies for the playoffs, which means that teams that have gathered more wins, more tries, and more points during the season are not necessarily going to compete in the playoffs.

Super Rugby has grown from a lean, highly competitive and innovative youngster into a rather chubby conservative old man.

There are now 125 games in the S15 season. Far too many games, and way too many mediocre games. The competition has lost it’s sparkle. It has lost that eagerness of youth and the innovation required to keep the game growing.

If you ask the blazer-wearers that administer the game they will wax effusively about the number of games played, how many countries outside SANZAR buy television rights, how the game is being taken into the community by arranging fixtures in random far-away places. They will tell you the game is growing by leaps and bounds. Their enthusiasm for more of the same is almost frightening.

There is a simple untruth in this enthusiasm. Check the attendance figures at Super Rugby matches! The scary fact is that the attendance figures for S15 rugby matches are on a constant downward trend. A total of just 1 224 141 spectators attended the 125 Super 15 matches this year. The average attendance at a Super Rugby fixture in 2014 was a mere 19 127.

South African average attendances were of the order of 28 500 spectators, whilst the only team from Australia and New Zealand that topped the 20 000 mark was the Reds. The Crusaders topped the attendance log in New Zealand with just 16 000 on average.

The Hurricanes only averaged around 9 000 per game, whilst the Melbourne Rebels were down at 11 000.

Those figures suggest growing spectator fatigue and a loss of interest in the game itself.

Television audiences in Europe, the USA, and elsewhere do not make up for the decrease in interest back in the countries where the action is supposed to matter.

My own view is that there is simply too much rugby being played and most of it is uninspiring and forgettable rugby at that.

Think back to the exceptional games of 2014 – the final was a great advert for rugby, but how many others stand out? Perhaps the Highlanders demolishing the Sharks in Durban is one standout game, and then the Stormers rediscovering their mojo and knocking over the same Highlanders a week later? Perhaps the Sharks remarkable stoicism against the Crusaders whilst being short a player or two. Maybe the Chiefs knocking over the Highlanders?

Not much great rugby then????

There is so little of it that can be remembered.

A couple of players stood up to be counted. Willie le Roux ran more meters than anyone else, Malakai Fekitoa promised much but seemed to go off the boil. Jacques Potgieter found that running with the ball was fun while Colin Slade told New Zealanders that there is life after Carter. Hendre Pollard made us believe that perhaps there was something better ahead….

Not too many stand out performances then????

Who captured the imagination? What team gave you the incentive to get up in the early morning hours to watch them? Where were the heroes? Where were the moments of genius? Where were the flashes of inspiration? Where was in the innovation?

The rugby was mostly pedestrian, lateral and unimaginative. There were moments, the Highlanders and the Hurricanes gave us some exciting rugby, the Cheetahs produced some sublime moments, the Stormers remembered that you can run with the ball too. But, and it is an enormous but, this has to have been one of the most mediocre Super Series of all time.

We started with 15 teams and by the midway point there were only five, the Crusaders, Chiefs, Waratahs, Sharks and Brumbies that seemed capable of winning it? Yes the Bulls hoped against hope while playing stereotypically unimaginative rugby, and the Canes and Highlanders flattered to deceive. The Force thought they might have a chance. The reality was that the rest of them, 10 teams in total, were only there to make up the numbers.

Most of the rugby blurred into one forgettable mess.

The definition of what makes a good competition has changed since Super Rugby’s inception back in 1996. In those early years, it was exciting, memorable, innovative and fresh. Today the game is a hard, mostly conservative, slog to get through the fixture list while surviving the inevitable injuries.

For the administrators it has become a matter of quantity outweighing quality. Rugby has become a by-product of commercial TV broadcast deals and sponsorship. It is sad, but it is very true.

At a time where Sevens Rugby is taking the world by storm – where the entire sporting world is sitting up and taking note of this exciting new addition to the already crowded Olympic calendar, the elder brother, the 15 man game is in danger of dying. 186 000 people bought tickets to watch 3 days of Sevens Rugby at the Commonwealth Games – that is 62 000 spectators per day – to watch Papua New Guinea and the Cook islands along with South Africa, New Zealand and the other big guns. Sixty Two Thousand people. Per Day. In Edinburgh, Scotland.

And now Super Rugby is on the verge of expanding into Asia and Argentina! South Africa demands a sixth team in the competition to satisfy the personal ambitions of certain administrators and some unthinking politicians. The entire competition will be split into a variety of leagues to accommodate more and more teams.

There is no doubt in my mind that the new competition is going to be weaker and less interesting than ever before. Watered down whisky is not the real thing.

One would have to be smoking something strong and illegal to think that a team from Japan or Singapore, Argentina even, has a chance at winning the Super Series. (Unless the entire team is made up of imported players from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa) The most likely outcome of the inclusion of teams from Asia and Argentina will be a further drop in the standard of rugby played throughout the competition. Walking bonus points as they get thumped week in and week out with very little chance of winning anything except a wooden spoon. Just another travel destination for increasingly weary teams, just another fixture to be endured.

And the administrators will crow about “taking the game to new territories” and “expanding the rugby world” and increased television revenues.

At what cost?

Bill van Zyl May 2014