Eating at Sanzaar’s

There is a story doing the rounds.

It is about Chef, who owned and ran a restaurant in a big city. It was a good restaurant, an upper-class fine-dining place, focussed on classic French cooking. A restaurant that attracted a regular flow of loyal customers, those that came back time and again to feast on the classic dishes that Chef had developed and tweaked to perfection, and then served up with admirable consistency. The restaurant had a solid reputation, with good reviews in the media and very few complaints. The reputation of Chef and his restaurant drew more than just those faithful regulars, there was a constant trickle of new names in the restaurant’s reservation book.

It was all good.

And then a new restaurant opened across the street. It offered a completely different menu and some bright neon lights, happy noise, music too. A host of younger folk started trying the new restaurant. The place seemed really busy!

Every once in a while one of Chef’s regular patrons could be seen going in through the doors of the new restaurant.

Chef was not worried, a bit of competition never hurt anybody, and he knew his food was good enough to keep those regulars coming back, even after they had tried the wares on offer across the road. He knew his restaurant was better, and classier too!

He was just a little worried when he started to see some of his regulars going back to the place across the road for a second, or even a third time. And then just a little more worried when his end-of-the-month figures started to stagnate, there was no more of that regular growth. Some months were even showing a downward trend.

At first he thought it was the economy, or the winter weather, or even just a phase.

But he could not help noticing that the stream of people in and out of the door across the road did not seem to be slowing down any.

One day, out of curiosity, he even took off his Chef’s whites and put on some civilian clothes, and ventured across the street to see what the buzz was all about. The place was full, a younger crowd than that which came to his restaurant, but still a crowd. A noisy crowd too, buying drinks and eating stuff,  they seemed to be having fun. A glance at the menu caused his lip to curl with disdain – hamburgers, steaks, ribs, chicken schnitzel, all served with those frites the Belgians had inflicted upon the world. Not really haute cuisine….

Back in his own restaurant he was fairly comfortable that the place across the road was no real threat. They did not serve real food……

Except that the numbers did not lie. As the weeks passed his regulars seemed to visit less frequently, and the trickle of new faces slowed a bit. There were even days when the reservation book had empty spaces!

As he thought about the problem, Chef had an epiphany! Maybe the modern world needed more modern food than just his French classics? He had better start serving some of the dishes those guys across the road had on their menu, just to pull some of those culinary philistines in through his own doors. Some hamburgers, a couple of monkey-gland sauced steaks….. If that helped balance the books, then a Chef must do what a chef must do!

He sent one of his waiters across the road with a message for the man who cooked the burgers – “Do you want a job?”

Once the burgers and steaks were on the menu, Chef sat back to wait for all his regulars to come back……

Some came back, a couple of new faces too, but many only came back once, others didn’t.

After a week or two Chef had another think. Perhaps he had to go a bit further? Something extra to attract his regulars back? Something that crowd across the road did not have.

He went downtown to the Oriental Plaza and found himself a Sushi Chef.

Sushi on the menu worked, for some.

But it still did not attract the regulars back with any frequency, and it was not really getting the new faces in through the door…

A Curry evening on Wednesdays did not help either. Nor did the Hawaiian Weekends with the Mexican Mariachi band either………..

Slowly at first, but then in a rush the patrons abandoned poor old Chef.

He was at his wits end. He had no more ideas, what could he do to get his customers back?

It was in those darkest hours that an old friend from a different city came visiting. The friend was dismayed to find Chef, the well-known purveyor of the finest French cuisine, sitting alone, in an empty restaurant.

Over a small glass of sherry Chef explained his problems to his friend.

The friend looked at him over the rim of the sherry glass and nodded. “Chef, when your restaurant was one of the best, what did you serve?”

“Good French dishes, the best, the stuff everyone likes!”

“And now?”

“Well, they started to go and eat burgers over the road, and…………”

“And?”

“And I tried to get them back by serving burgers too.”

“But you are really good at French style cooking, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I guess….”

“Then  why are you serving burgers?

I wish I could end this little story by telling you that Chef changed his ways and went back to doing what he did best. I wish I could tell you that Chef’s Restaurant is again one of the best in the city….

But Chef did not listen to his friend. Chef decided to stop serving French cuisine altogether and concentrate on Albanian Gjelleë stews, with some Fërgese Tiranë, just for the vegetarians.

And now he runs a hot dog stand on the corner of the road.

Sanzar Selling Haute Cuisine.

Change the story just a tiny bit –

There were three countries that started a rugby competition together. A competition that served up some of the finest rugby imaginable.

It was innovative, exciting, fresh, and of real quality.

The three countries called themselves Sanzar, and their competition was called Super 10.

And it was good. Really good.

So good that the rest of the world sat up and took a long hard look at what was happening in the Southern Hemisphere. They looked, and knew that they were being left behind.

And then Sanzar, flushed with the success of Super 10 and the constant stream of advertisers, sponsors and fans that flooded into the game decided that they needed to increase the size of their competition.

The game went professional, and Super 12 was born.

And it too, was good. Very, very good!

The fans loved the game, they filled the stadiums. They bought the merchandise; they subscribed to the websites; they joined the supporters clubs. Season tickets were a special prize!

The television broadcasters loved the competition, they were prepared to throw lots of money at Sanzar for the right to broadcast their Super 12 games to the world.

And the sponsors and advertisers loved the game too. Even more money flowed into the game.

Southern Hemisphere Rugby was all-powerful. The teams from the south dominated the world, and everything was rosy.

And then a new restaurant opened on the other side of the world. In the year 2000 the Five Nations invited Italy to join them, and became the 6 Nations.

Those pesky northerners went further, they started fiddling with their top competitions too, they tweaked the English Premiership in 2000, and again in 2003. The fans started to flock to the games, with stands full of spectators.

Over in France they changed the Top 14, and in 2005/6 it started to grow as more and more fans flocked in to watch. Almost 80 000 went to see Stade Français play Toulouse in the 2005 final.

The Welsh and the Irish jumped in too, the Celtic League became the Pro 12 and then the Pro 14.

And the Champions Cup, then called the Heineken Cup, was played between the top teams in the 6 Nations countries.

And it was all so very good too.

And this new northern rugby restaurant had something that the south did not have. The private clubs had rich benefactors, with plenty of money.

So they started to recruit some of those southerners to go and add some new flavours to the rugby dishes being served up north.

Down south, the men in suits who run Sanzar watched the rugby explosion in the north and wondered what they should do about it.

How do they maintain their competition’s dominance as the best in the world? How do they keep the northerners at bay?

Easy!


Make Super Rugby Bigger! More Burgers!

In 2006 they expanded the Super Rugby competition from the Super 12 to the Super 14.

Although Super 14 introduced some challenges, with a lot of extra travel for teams from South Africa, and a longer and more cluttered season, it was still good.

Rather, it was okay……

Not as good as Super 10 or Super 12, some of the newer teams did not have the strength or quality of the originals, and it showed as some of the games became a ritual slaughter and others slowed and became boring.

The extra travelling and the longer season with more fixtures introduced an element of survival planning. Injuries started to take a toll. Teams had to rotate players, they would target games they knew they could win easily as those in which they could play some of their back-up squad.

They eased the intensity in some games. Strategies evolved around winning home games and targeting one or two away games. If you got X number of log points you were in the finals……

Some of the games became boring old arm-wrestles. The innovation and excitement of Super 12 rugby was starting to disappear. There was an element of staleness rather than a freshness to the competition.

Rugby being a business, and numbers being important to a business, the Sanzar suits had a long think.

They saw that their numbers were starting to shrink. The fans were not filling the stadiums as they used to. Advertisers were a little less excited about putting their name to this “product” as Sanzar’s men now termed their competition.

So what did they do?

They increased the size of their competition!

Monkey-Gland Steak On the Menu

They brought in another team from Australia and they called it Super 15 Rugby.

They also changed the rules!

A competition that had been played on a round robin basis, with the top teams competing in the finals, was gone.

Sanzar thought up a whole new structure.

In 2011 Sanzar’s Super Rugby introduced a conference format. There were three conferences, an Australian Conference, a New Zealand Conference, and a South African Conference. Teams would play two games against each of the teams in their own conference, and once only against the teams in the other conferences. Some of those “cross-conference” games were at home and some away.

An “exciting and innovative” format that Sanzar said would reduce travel, give more local derbies and extend the length of the season, providing more games and thus earning Sanzar more money.

Oh, and another change to the system: The finals would not be between the top teams on the log anymore. Each of the conference winners would be granted automatic entry into the playoffs, with guaranteed home advantage, no matter what their actual log position in the overall competition.

Super 15 was not good.

Super 12 had been modified, and slightly bent to become Super 14, now the Sanzar suits simply broke it altogether.

Super 15 lasted just four years. A lot of voices were saying that it was all wrong and that the original concept of an international club competition that featured strength versus strength had been perverted into a laborious, overly long, mediocrity ridden survival exercise.

Sanzar listened to the complaints.

And reacted in the most confusing way.

Sushi On the Menu!

Instead of retracting from their over-reach and returning to a format that worked, preferably Super 12, they went the other way.

Their response to a competition that was losing favour with the fans, the advertisers and the sponsors was further expansion.

In 2016, Super Rugby has extended beyond the three original countries into Argentina and Japan.

A new name was invented, Sanzar became Sanzaar, the additional “a” for Argentina.

And 3 new teams were added to the competition, pushing it to a Super 18 configuration. South Africa gained a team, the misbegotten Super Kings, Argentina sent their national team, the Pumas renamed as the Jaguares. While Japan gained a team of mostly foreign legionnaires, called the Sunwolves.

Just to add confusion to the whole issue, a new FOUR conference system was introduced, with South Africa suddenly hosting two conferences. The Jaguares and the Sunwolves were deemed to be South African teams and allocated to different South African conferences.

There was much noble talk about “taking the game to the world” and “increasing the reach of the game” and “for the good of world rugby” and any other excuse or platitude the Sanzaar suits could think of.

It was all mindless self-aggrandising waffle and the whole thing was not thought through terribly well.

Their ongoing expansion and new conferences caused Super Rugby a number of huge problems – problems that left the competition in a dire state.

Teams no longer played all the teams in the other conferences. Some never played against teams from one or another of the other conferences.

A double round of local derbies provided for most of the rugby played, with some iffy cross-conference fixtures, including playing some of the Tokyo-based Japanese-South African Sunwolves home games in Singapore!

Super 18 was a whole new level of stupidity, with a special farce in 2017 where the Lions qualified at the top of the overall log, and thus the rights to a home final, while avoiding the NZ teams until the semi-finals! The Australian Brumbies also being granted a home playoff with fewer points than all five of the NZ teams.

The quality of the Sanzaar’s “product” became a laughable excuse of poor and mediocre rugby for the most part, in an overly long and cluttered season involving far too much travelling by teams, with some hugely physical derbies just to increase the body count.

The fans voted with their feet.

They left the stadiums empty.

Television viewership figures plummeted.

Call In the Consultants

Sanzaar were forced to admit the Super 18 format was a complete failure, although it took them some considerable time to accept the inevitable as they threw money at all kinds of Management Consultants and Marketing Specialists.

Eventually they accepted that Super 18 was dead. They simply had to reduce the number of teams in the competition.

South Africa were quick to accept that they had to reduce their numbers, and agreed to drop two teams. The Super Kings and the Cheetahs were history.

Australia, despite the exceptionally poor quality of their Super Rugby efforts were not happy. They reluctantly accepted that they had to lose a team, but the decision on which team should go triggered a whole bunch of squabbling and scratching that was to drag on for months, with the whole issue muddied by the threats of RUPA, the players’ trade union, to call a strike.

Super Rugby 2018 Style

2018 has seen Super Rugby reduced back to 15 teams with a similar conference format to the one used between 2011-15.

The Sunwolves lost their South Africa citizenship and became Australian conference members. The Jaguares stayed in Africa.

Under the current conference format, the focus is still more about the local derbies than it is about playing the other conferences’ teams.

The new version of Super Rugby has a number of serious problems.

Firstly, the system still guarantees the winner of each national conference the right to host a home quarterfinal.

This is really a problem when one of the conferences is perceived to be so much weaker than the others, such as is the current situation with the Australian conference. As matters stand today, the Waratahs will host the Australian Conference winner’s quarterfinal, despite having just 44 log points and thus less than two of the New Zealanders who have 50 and 45 points respectively, but do not qualify to host a quarterfinal!

Remembering too that the New Zealand outfits have to play a double round of internal derbies, games of vastly greater physicality and intensity than the Waratahs recent “Aussie derby” game against the Sunwolves!

The system remains inherently unfair.

And then there is the focus on local derbies. This has already been a subject of much discussion.

It has become very clear that the greater physicality and intensity of the local derbies are punishing the players with an increasing the number of injuries in all the teams. The modern game is already a high impact game with massively challenging collisions. The derbies simply ramp up the intensity another couple of steps. Some of those New Zealand derbies are close to test level in ferocity.

If we scan across the whole of Super Rugby we see a host of big name players who are out or have spent extended time out of rugby just in 2018 because of serious injuries. Kieran Read, Eben Etzebeth, Jaco Kriel, Dane Coles, Israel Dagg, Courtnall Skosan, Warren Whiteley, Joe Moody, Nehe Milner-Skudder, the list just goes on and on.

The more quality players who have to sit out extended periods because of injury, the more the overall quality of the game suffers.

Let’s also be blunt:

Too much of a good thing is also undesirable!

If you love Pate de Foie Gras, it is an enormous treat when you get to taste it occasionally. If you had it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day for a week, it could become a little ordinary, your palette will soon become jaded and you will start looking for a greasy hamburger just to break the monotony.

In much the same way, eating a greasy hamburger every day, three times a day will soon become a little boring.

Super Rugby is serving up an awful lot of hamburgers.

And some of them are truly awful, those grey masquerading-as-beef patties of over processed protein with zero flavour and less nutritional value. Tasteless and unfulfilling.

The entire competition is over-loaded with nothing games. Survival challenges when a team has to travel from the mid-winter of the Highveld to play rugby in the tropical summer of Singapore. Going-through-the-motions games between No 13 and No 15 on the log.

And the fans continue to vote with their feet, all walking rapidly away from the stadiums and rugby fields. In Australia Super Rugby draws less television viewers than does a gardening programme on the next channel! Even the ever-popular Stormers struggled to draw crowds, and they have the most loyal supporters in the whole competition! Stadiums in New Zealand were frequently echoingly empty, despite the high quality of some of their derbies.

More frightening, has been the flood of Australian, New Zealand, and South African players streaming off to go and play their rugby in the northern hemisphere. Some suggest it is all about the money. I would differ. Super Rugby might well be the primary cause for the emigration of players. Why play in the high intensity of some Super Rugby conferences, if you can have a much easier, and longer, and potentially lucrative career somewhere else?

The point which is certainly being missed by Sanzaar’s administrators and executives, those I term the “suits” is that many players are reluctant to make a commitment to Super Rugby without knowing how it will be structured in 2020.

The longer there is a delay, the more likely it is that even more players will opt to move elsewhere.

Super Rugby has reached the point where some very serious discussions are needed. The entire competition and it’s future need to be considered, reconsidered, and then considered again.

Decisions about Super Rugby’s future are needed as a matter of urgency.

The decisions have to be about the future of the sport of rugby, not the money!

Up to now the Sanzaar suits have been making decisions based simply on making money, ahead of common sense and the good of the game. The inclusion of the Sunwolves from Japan, appeared to have been based exclusively on their potential economic offering rather than their playing ability. This was not a rugby-based decision, it was a marketing decision!

The Sanzaar suits have dug themselves into a very deep hole, and they are struggling to find their way out.

And what are they actually doing?

It seems that not only have they dug a very deep hole, now that they have reached rock bottom, they have reached for the jackhammers and picks and started to dig!

Despite the recent reduction back to Super 15, a recently leaked document showed that Sanzaar are considering expanding into the USA, and possibly into the Pacific Islands for the next broadcast deal. Not only are we going to have more rugby across vastly longer distances, we are introducing teams that are likely to dilute the quality of the rugby on offer even further. This would be an expansion that could easily backfire on them just as quickly and messily as the 18 team format did.

Quo Vadis?

Given how dire things have become, how exactly should Sanzaar go about fixing things?

First & foremost, they need to work out what they want Super Rugby to be. They seem to have lost their sense of direction, their very raison d’etre.

In the beginning it was a competition designed to find the best franchise out of three nations.

It subscribed to the age-old truth: Strength versus Strength breeds strength.

The rugby was fast, innovative, clever, and entertaining. The round robin format was visibly successful and it ensured the best teams were in the playoffs. It also meant that everyone played everyone else, eliminating the perception of an easier draw for some and a tougher one for others.

The game continually generated innovative thinking and developed superb skills. The pace of the game increased by leaps and bounds. It was a beautiful thing.

As we said above: That was good. Very good.

Surely that has to be the way every fan, every true rugby administrator, every rugby player, every coach, and every aspiring schoolboy rugby player, every sponsor, every advertiser, every television viewer, every television executive, everybody wants the game to go?

This is the format Super Rugby desperately needs to return to as soon as possible.

At least from 2020 and beyond, otherwise this once great competition could end up withering and dying completely.

Right now, Super Rugby seems to be more about the power plays of the executives and the suit-wearing administrators. It seems to be about keeping the broadcasters in each country happy with a rigged playoff format that rewards mediocrity.

Much like our Chef earlier in this story, Sanzaar expanded, and expanded, adding bells and whistles, strange dishes and Mariachi bands, and still found the patrons going to a different restaurant across the street.

When someone suggests that they stick to what they know works, they ignore that advice and head off in a wholly different direction.

They too, will soon be running a hot-dog stand!