Hardly a week goes by without a commentator or scribe somewhere questioning the future of Super Rugby, but is it the competition that is under threat, or the sport itself? Writes Gavin Rich for Business Day Sport
The enthusiasm that was evident when slightly better crowds attended the local derby matches in Cape Town and Pretoria over the past two weekends was evidence of how much the interest has waned. A few years ago those crowds would have been much bigger.
What is particularly concerning is that the tournament could not be in a more interesting phase from a local viewpoint. All five teams in the conference have a chance of winning it, and both derby matches produced top quality rugby. And yet the attendance at the Stormers match against the Chiefs this past Saturday dropped by 12 000 from seven days earlier.
The concern is not just limited to South Africa. The freaky come from behind win that Crusaders scored over the Waratahs stretched the Kiwi winning sequence over Australian teams to 39 games and wouldn’t have pleased Australian rugby boss Raelene Castle, who was moved the previous week to criticise the competition for its predictability.
Castle said that because of the New Zealand dominance, the competition lacked the key ingredient of “uncertainty of outcome”. She said “the hope that when you buy a ticket and sit down you believe your team can win” should be what the competition strives for.
She is right about the predictability aspect, but that wouldn’t explain any apathy in South Africa, where it is almost impossible to divide the teams and predict outcome with any assurance. It also doesn’t explain why even in New Zealand, support of the sport appears to be shrinking.
Super Rugby is the issue now because it’s May, but if it was August then the Currie Cup and the Rugby Championship would be under the spotlight. There has been a waning of interest there too, and while European rugby looks vibrant when we watch a club final, generally the better atmosphere we perceive north of the equator comes about because the clubs play in much smaller venues. Most of the European clubs are losing money.
There are issues with Super Rugby, but the fall-off in support is probably related to more universal issues afflicting the sport. Issues such as an over complicated law book which allows individual refereeing interpretations to have too much influence and the fact that the sport is evolving to a point where coaches are just becoming too clever.
That latter point relates among other things to the way that defence, and the coaching of defence, has become such a science and how it has impacted on rugby’s aesthetic value. With line-speed becoming a buzzword of the modern game and now being accepted as necessary even by those coaches who were previously doubters, the challenge is going to get even bigger. It will be only a matter of time before the lawmakers come up with some remedy that will complicate the law book even further.
The more the sport evolves the more pressure there is for the lawmakers to stay ahead of the game, and what they come up with often doesn’t help. For instance, adjusting the laws to favour the attacking team sounds good in practice but when you get to the nitty gritty it often does the opposite.
As an example, the way it stands, if an attacking team is held up on the line, they get the benefit of the feed at the resultant scrum. Wouldn’t it place onus on the attacking team to be more adventurous, meaning try something other than just monotonously drive the forwards at the line, if it was the defending team that got the put-in?
Is it good for the sport that a couple of generations of people possibly don’t recognise it as the same sport they grew up and played? Is it good that scrums are now as often seen as a vehicle to force a penalty as they are a starting point for attack, and that so many referees, because of the myriad laws that apply, don’t appear to have a clue about the scrums and just blow them arbitrarily?
The ease with which referees wave yellow cards and thus render it an unequal contest and the interminable amount of time referees spend conferring with TMOs detracts from the pace and flow of the entertainment and this is by no means an all-inclusive list. It’s why we are not just looking at a SUPER rugby problem.