Time for Super makeover

Gavin Rich, writing in SA Rugby magazine, examines what Sanzar needs to do to keep the Super 14 fresh and vibrant.

picture-1Ho hum. Ever had that feeling at the start of a new Super 14 season? Here is the usual scenario: South African teams face off against one another, they are hard and bruising affairs, invariably the favoured teams win the matches.

The same happens in New Zealand, with tough derbies the order of the day. One Australian team plays the Lions or the Cheetahs in South Africa, and wins playing rugby that is only slightly less boring than that of their opponents. One of the favoured New Zealand teams beats the less favoured Australian team.

And so into week two, and South Africans who felt their teams would be competitive this year are given a nasty shock as the bruising wins of the previous week become bruising defeats. As the weeks roll on, the rugby becomes sharper, slightly more entertaining, a few controversies start to spice the competition up – but the pattern of the tournament becomes all too familiar, as does the style of the rugby employed by most of the teams.

One game morphs into another as one season morphs into another with the same teams prevailing with the same rugby. With the exception of 2007, when we had an all-South African final, the general trend is for it to be a Kiwi team playing an Aussie team, or two Kiwi teams up against each other, with the trophy usually ending up residing in Christchurch.

One South African franchise normally does well enough to either just make or miss the Super 14 semi-finals. The team that makes the top four is usually treated like they won the competition, as the rest of the local sides spend their time complaining about how tough all the travel is and how this loads the odds against them.

And, to be honest, the travel factor usually does make it almost impossible for a South African semi-finalist to win if they haven’t come in the top two. There have been several occasions where local sides have had to make the debilitating flight east for a play-off just a week or two after they had flown home from a four or five week tour of Australasia.

Most of the SA sides spend much of the season playing like they believe the travel bogey is an impossible one to overcome. Looking at the past few seasons, if you are a supporter of the Cheetahs or the Lions, and actually go to home matches thinking your team may pick up enough consistency or momentum to really challenge for a top-four place, then you probably also believe 2009 will bring an end to all strife and an outbreak of world peace.

Frankly, it is hard to understand why you bother after week four, which is usually when it becomes obvious your beloved team are going nowhere.

The competition is top heavy. Look at how often certain teams feature in the play-offs, and how quickly and regularly some fall out of the race. This is one aspect that the Sanzar alliance has got to start moving on to change. We need something to get more people interested across a wider area. An attempt, you could say, to get the publicans of Bloemfontein into the idea of opening their establishments for breakfast early on a Saturday morning rather than just pretend the Cheetahs don’t actually exist when they play away from Vodacom Park.

But don’t for a moment think that it is just the perennial losers that are concerned and seek a new incentive. The regular winners, those from New Zealand, are also getting a bit bored with it all, and this is one of their primary motivations for seeking a complete overhaul to the competition in 2010. That, and money …

Yes, it is money that makes the world go around, and in case anyone hasn’t noticed, New Zealand is suffering as much, if not more, than any of the other southern-hemisphere nations when it comes to outflow of players to the northern hemisphere. In 2009, the Crusaders will be playing without Dan Carter, and it is not as if that team have not already lost a sizeable chunk of their personnel to France and England.

For New Zealand, the solution is to make the Super 14 more interesting, and more lucrative. And the way to do that may be to attract American interest, and the interest of other regions of the world where there is a lot of money, such as Japan.

The word from New Zealand is that they want to make the tournament more interesting in a way that will make it the top rugby competition in the world, thus attracting additional support, sponsorships and funding, and making it attractive for their world-class players to stay at home rather than head north of the equator to England or France.

Frédéric Michalak let it be known what he thought of the draw of the Super 14 when he sojourned with the Sharks last season. For him, a season of Super 14 rugby was part of his ‘to do while I am a rugby player’ list.

But it is not just money that is sending southern-hemisphere players to the north. According to Andy Marinos, the managing director of SA Rugby, it is also quality of life. The players’ associations of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa have all been engaged in the ‘blue-sky thinking’ that has started among the Sanzar partners as they start looking towards 2010, which is when the current agreement ends.

The big questions being asked at these meetings revolve around the need to spice up the competition, the workability of the current horizontal system versus a possible vertical system with a conferencing component, and the possible expansion to incorporate new markets. The outflow of players though is a primary concern, and their views are being canvassed. ‘We have consulted with the player associations and the message that is coming through is crystal clear: the players are tired of all the travelling they have to do in the Super 14, they don’t want to spend as much time in the air that they have to in moving continually between South Africa and the two Australasian countries,’ said Marinos.

‘This is as much a factor in sending the players to the north as money is. It really isn’t just about the strength of the euro or pound, it is about quality of life. By playing in the north, you don’t do as much travelling, you are not forced to be away from home for four to five weeks at a time, as the South African players are, you can spend more time with your family living a normal life.

‘Because of this, there is a big drive for us to come up with something that will enable us to structure our seasons differently to how they are at the moment.’

So how do you go about cutting out all the travel? If you listen to Marinos, it appears there is a strong move towards adopting a conferencing system.

‘We have done an analysis of the stats, and the common trend that has emerged is that the local derbies are by far the most popular games in terms of crowd attendance as well as television viewership,’ he says. ‘An option then is to play a double round of matches within each country, and then for the top teams to advance to a quarter-final (a group of eight) or top section, and the bottom sides to be incorporated into a bowl competition. The problem is that the current format is quite well established, and we must be very wary of breaking down what works, and the product has to be compelling to the broadcaster.

‘But it is a difficult one, for we also know that the big draw of the Super 14 in its current format is the international flavour. The supporters may find the derbies the biggest drawcard in a season, but South African supporters also do want to see teams like the Blues, Crusaders and Waratahs in action.’

There is another aspect of a conferencing system that the New Zealanders in particular don’t like, and probably rightfully so. It means that the top teams in the competition don’t necessarily compete in the play-offs, and as many Kiwi critics have pointed out, that makes a mockery of the tournament.

When the South African demand for a home game to be guaranteed to the country in the mooted top six play-off stage planned for next year eventually led to this innovation being shelved, there was a virulent reaction from New Zealanders, who claimed this was just another example of ‘saffas’ trying to cover for their own incompetence.

But Marinos, who stressed that all the proposals on the table are just thoughts that need to be debated fully, disagrees.

‘We want a system that is going to be attractive to all, and we found a few years ago when we had a home final in South Africa just how massive it is to have a play-off game in your own country both financially and in terms of interest,’ said Marinos.

‘It makes a lot of sense for broadcasters if we ensure that all of the nations are still represented in the competition when the play-off stage arrives. The competition does become a lot more attractive to the broadcaster if they know that we are not going to go into the final three weeks or a month and one of the three nations no longer has an interest.’

There are different factors influencing the thinking of the three nations. South Africa is currently the country less likely
to be in favour of an expanded competition, to a Super 18 or Super 20, simply because the domestic competition, the Currie Cup, is still a major factor in their consideration.

‘New Zealand are currently in a state of flux with regards to the NPC, they are not sure what format they want to adopt or
where they want to take it. Australia is obviously the nation with the cleanest sheet – they don’t have any domestic competition at present, and that is why they would like to see an expansion. The more competitive rugby they have, the better for them from a financial viewpoint.’

Where an expanded competition would help South Africa would be in broadening the local player base involved in the Super competition, and Saru president Oregan Hoskins has made it known that he wants to see the Spears concept re-visited. Like the participation of nations which remain untapped sources of rugby potential, rugby readiness has to be a big consideration before the green light can be given.

‘Obviously that is what we would like to see. An extra team from the Eastern Cape makes a lot of sense from a transformation and development viewpoint, as well as just getting big live rugby matches to a part of South Africa which covers a large area. But it is crucial that the region is rugby ready, they have to be competitive week in and week out for it to be attractive to the broadcaster.’

If they were able to prove they were rugby ready, the inclusion of Japan, Argentina, the USA and Canada would add the necessary extra spice to the competition, as well as open up new markets and attract strong currencies. The Super 14 would then also be doing rugby a huge favour by sparking further growth of the code in areas where all sports, for financial reasons, want to get a foothold.

The advantages of having the Americans involved are many, but you just have to think of one, the interest of their broadcasters and the probable economic spin-offs from that, to see it as a winner. Argentina, and probably the Pacific Islands, are being considered for different reasons, but again that little phrase comes up – ‘rugby readiness’.

And it is not a small consideration. We saw in 2007 how competitive Argentina can be when they are at full strength and all their players, most of whom are now based in France, are available. But we saw in August, when the Springboks thumped a weakened team by 60 points, just how poor they are when their top players are otherwise engaged.

With the teams from the Pacific this is even more of a potential problem, and while the addition of new competitors might initially pep up a tournament in need of an injection, the interest will quickly wear thin if the new teams keep getting thumped by big margins.

And while for Australia the addition of Japan and island teams is hardly problematic in terms of travel, for South Africa it would add further to the over-done travel schedules of players who just see too many aeroplanes and hotel rooms in their rugby year.

The bottom line though is that the competition must be interesting to the viewing public and the rugby market, and the Sanzar partners and other role players face a tricky juggling act as they search for a formula that will satisfy the expansionists as well as ensure that instead of just seeing the Lions providing cannon fodder for two months of the year, their supporters will in future have to put up with four.

This article first appeared in SA Rugby magazine.