Super Rugby 2017

Week Twelve

A Thought For The Week:

As we head into the quarterfinals of Super Rugby 2017 we edge closer to the end of a competition that had seen first class rugby in the southern hemisphere plummet to the depths of mediocrity in perhaps the best example of self-inflicted chaos in the history of sport. An unworkable, incomprehensible, unsustainable and, ultimately, unmarketable competition is consigned to history.

Super Rugby simply could not lurch from its worst season ever in terms of public perception, plummeting crowd attendances, and vanishing television audience numbers into another year of the same. Change was critical if the competition was to survive; the calls for change came from every corner of the rugby world and, for once, the Sanzaar delegates responded logically. They decided that the 18-team format should be dumped forthwith, and that the competition should revert to the only slightly less clumsy Super 15 format.

Or, at least, that would be the case if democracy ruled the competition. 66,66% of the participants want to see the end of the 18-team format and a return to the 15 team format of seasons past. New Zealand and South Africa want the competition reduced and streamlined. Australia said they wanted the same, they promised to conform to the new format…. But have singularly failed to deliver.

And now, the tail is doing it’s very best to wag the dog to death.

Somehow, the weakest of the Sanzaar partners is holding the entire competition and the future of Southern Hemispherean rugby to ransom.

In every other aspect of sporting life, the weakest are left to wither and die. They are demoted from the leagues or competitions where they cannot compete effectively. They lose sponsors and supporters. The best players avoid signing contracts to play for weak teams. The weak ride off into sporting history or the wilderness, whichever is the closer.

It is the way of the sporting world. I recently watched an interview with golfing great Gary Player. He made the significant point that he is really remembered for winning 9 Major tournaments. He said “I came second 6 times and third 3 times. I finished in the Top-5 23 other times. Nobody remembers that…..”

Staying in the world of golf, Tiger Woods comes to mind. This is the man that held the World Number One ranking for a record 683 weeks. He was the best in the world for a very long time. Now, July 2017, Tiger Woods is ranked number 1005 in the world. The first time in his entire career where he has been ranked outside the top 1000.

The truth is simple. Tiger’s body cannot take the punishment of really top class golf anymore. A succession of back operations, continual pain medication, some personal and psychological issues and a disastrous run of form have seen him go from being the number one spectator drawcard in his sport, to someone that no longer attracts spectators, sponsors, or media attention anymore. We only hear and read about personal issues such as an arrest for driving under the influence of the pain medication he is taking.

Tiger Woods at his best was drowned in invitations to play in tournaments. Tournament organizers knew that his presence would ensure the success of any event they hosted. They needed him, they wanted him, he could demand eye-wateringly huge amounts in attendance fees, and they were happy to pay for the privilege.

Now, sadly, he is not even invited to the pre-tournament Pro-Ams anymore. How the mighty have fallen.

The truth of sport is that the strongest survive. The strongest hold the power and call the shots. The strongest have influence, the weak do not.

This is true for sports of all persuasions.

But it seems that this is not true in Super Rugby, where Australia, easily the weakest of the Big 3 participating countries, have become something of a dog in the manger.

Australia, with one of the poorest Super Rugby records in the 22-year history of the competition, with their only representation in the playoffs coming through a strange and hugely illogical competition structure, somehow hold the power to determine whether Super Rugby will make the changes agreed to by all the parties earlier in March of this year, or whether Super Rugby and Sanzaar will be dragged even further into the mire than it is already occupying now.

Somehow, they have the power to drag everyone down the plughole with them.

Consider this: The Australian Rugby Union agreed to drop a team from next year’s competition.

At the March meeting of Sanzaar functionaries in London, it was agreed that South Africa would cut two teams and Australia would cut one to create a 15-team competition in 2018.

The reduction in franchise numbers was required for the greater good of Super Rugby as a competition and Southern Hemispherean rugby as a whole. In the Sanzaar quest for world domination, the concept of quality versus quality had been lost and now everyone wanted that quality restored.

South Africa, to their eternal credit, made the commitment, and promptly went home and did what they said they would. The Cheetahs and the Kings have been consigned to Super Rugby history.

The Australians said they would do the same. They even said they would announce which team would be leaving Super Rugby within 72 hour of the Sanzaar delegation’s return to Australian shores.

That was four months ago. Their big promise remains unfulfilled and, as a result, they now hold the entire Super Rugby competition to ransom.

Sanzaar cannot go ahead and plan and prepare for next year’s competition. They cannot reveal the structure of the competition, they cannot produce a fixture list. Franchises across the entire competition are left in limbo, unable to make the necessary arrangements for the year ahead. Players are left in limbo, especially some Australian players, they do not know whether they will have a playing contract next year or whether they should be job hunting elsewhere.

They are waiting for Australia to make up their minds.

Let’s be brutally blunt. The Australians are watching the bottom fall out of their game. They have seen crowd numbers plummet, they have seen playing numbers collapse across the entire country. Their sponsors are fleeing into the distance, the broadcasters do not want them on their screens. Australian rugby is in some very deep dwang.

Consider the record of Australian Super Rugby teams against sides from other countries:

In 2017 they lost every single one of the 25 games they played against New Zealand based opposition. All five New Zealand sides finished with more log points than the Australian conference-winning Brumbies.

They played against South African based teams 10 times, losing 6, drawing 1 and winning just 4. They played against the Jaguares from the Argentine 5 times, losing 3 and winning 2.

Overall, Australian teams played against foreign teams 45 times — winning 6 games, drawing 1, and losing 38.

The national side, the Wallabies, whitewashed by England in 2016, inexplicably contrived to lose at home to Scotland, and yet they somehow have the power to determine the fate of New Zealand, South Africa, and the Argentine.

Noises out of Australia during the last couple of weeks are that they want Sanzaar to reconsider the Super 15 format agreed to back in March. They now want a Super 16 competition, which still includes all five the Australian franchises.

Their players’ union, RUPA, are vociferous in extolling the virtues of a sixteen-team format. (They also have a Plan B: to dump all the South African teams and go for a Trans-Tasman Super Rugby competition…)

Bluntly, a 16-team competition would be a nonsense.

It won’t work on any level.

Sixteen teams are just too many for a true round robin format, leaving the alternative option of reverting to two pools of five and one of six. Sound familiar? Oh Yes… It is just like Super Rugby with 18 teams… Pools, conferences, call them by any name you like, they remain an ugly, illogical, unworkable solution and would be no better than the current situation.

All because Australians lack the courage to stick to their word and axe a team from the competition. In truth, they cannot sustain four Super Rugby teams. Three is about their capacity at the moment, but they simply refuse to acknowledge their weakness and insist that they need five teams. For the good of Australian Rugby in the long term, they should lose two franchises.

Yet, the two franchises that should most logically be left out of Super Rugby, the Force and the Rebels, are fighting their exclusion with every weapon they can muster. Arbitration and possible High Court action looms.

And Australia still hold the Southern Hemispherean Rugby competition to ransom.

It is incredible – it is an ant controlling an elephant. I believe it is time for that elephant to stomp on the ant.

(As for RUPA’s suggestion that South Africa focus on playing rugby in the northern hemisphere and allow the Aussies and New Zealanders to go their own Ten Team Trans-Tasman way, this is not an option much liked or supported by the New Zealanders. They know that their financial survival needs South African money. Broadcast revenue for any Trans-Tasman competition without South Africa will be subject to a searching reassessment because South Africa provides the biggest TV audience for Super Rugby.)