Rugby

The Super Rugby reboot I need to hate the Reds again

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With each new generation of Australian Rugby leadership ushered in, the hope of rugby fans nation wide is momentarily ignited, before of course the inevitable reality of the dysfunctional system they’ve inherited set in, and good intentions are swept away in a wave of cultural and financial inertia.

The new centralisation model, and the commitment to the Super Rugby broadcast deals through to 2030, feels sadly like we’ve taken one step forward and two steps back. In doing so, Australia and New Zealand have handcuffed themselves to a regressing competition that grows increasingly irrelevant in World Rugby year on year.

Simultaneously, these proud rugby nations have forced themselves to sacrifice the health of and support for their respective domestic competitions; the crucial “third tier” which forms the foundation of a country’s player pool. Perhaps the best example might be South Africa’s Currie Cup, which dates back to 1891 and whose sides map to today’s professional franchises. Likewise, the Blues and Crusaders derive from Auckland and Canterbury; clubs that play in New Zealand’s third tier domestic competition, the NPC.

Meanwhile, Australia never developed a firmly entrenched national Tier 3 competition, with its state based club competitions such as the Shute Shield the Hospital Cup in NSW and QLD respectively historically being the source of the next generation of talent. The gap between the level of play of the state clubs and Super Rugby only grew as the professional era continued. Australia’s fleeting NRC competition, whilst helping develop many current stalwarts such as Tate McDermott and Rob Valetini, was ultimately not financially sustainable.

The fanbase’s disinterest with the increasingly uninspiring Super Rugby Pacific competition in its current format, evidenced by generally declining ratings and crowd attendances over the last decade, is palpable, and can be traced to several problems.

Firstly, the results have become predictable, due to the recent dominance of the New Zealand sides in particular. This has arisen due to the disproportionate allocation of Aussie and Kiwi players to their respective teams relative to the amount of players in these nations.

Reducing the number of Australian teams to better aggregate their smaller talent pool risks stifling the presence of the game in growth areas. Alternatively, increasing the number of New Zealand based teams would incur greater costs. Loosening national eligibility laws to allow All Blacks to play for Aussie Super Rugby sides, and vice versa, could better distribute playing talent. However, the selfish interests of both the Wallabies and All Blacks means that those in charge fail to recognise the potential of growing the size of the pie by increasing the quality of their product.

Secondly, the competition has begun to smell increasingly like a series of extended trials for the Wallabies and All Blacks squads, and as a result, lacks a compelling narrative. The quality imbalance between Australian and New Zealand side has contributed to this, as has the frequently changing conference system which over the years has led to uneven and unfair fixtures.

Will Skelton of Australia charges forward during The Rugby Championship & Bledisloe Cup match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the Australia Wallabies at Forsyth Barr Stadium on August 05, 2023 in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

In a recent article, The Roar columnist Ben Pobjie stated that “Passionate, visceral, irrational trablism is vital for any competition to succeed”. He argues that one of the mandatory litmus tests for the presence of genuine tribalism is whether or not a fan is happy for teams other than their own to succeed. He points out that the days of Reds fans joyfully relishing in a thrashing inflicted upon the Tahs, their traditional enemies, by a dominant Kiwi side, or vice versa, are long gone.

So imbalanced has the relative strength of Australian and New Zealander teams grown in recent years that all fans, including Kiwi fans, tend to be pleased if a rival Aussie team defeats a stronger Kiwi opponent. These supporters have grown so fearful about the health of the game that such a result, even if it’s not directly beneficial to their own team, shows some signs of life in the seemingly dying competition and that its fixtures can still occasionally deliver an upset.

Also, an Australian specific factor contributing to problem is the lack of scalability of its state based franchises. The New South Wales Waratahs and QLD Reds respectively encompass the entirety of the nation’s two traditional Rugby States. Therefore, in order to expand the competition by adding more sides in these states, such as Western Sydney, North QLD or NSW or QLD Country based sides, messy borders would have to be reconfigured for the jurisdictions of the new subdivided franchises.

This problem will reappear when, if the competition is ever to expand further in the Rugby mad Pacific islands by instating Samoa or Tonga with teams of their own, the Moana Pasifika, which currently represents both nations, may have to be unceremoniously dismembered.

Ultimately, even strong Rugby fans are losing interest in the faltering competition, with the positive feedback loop of declining ratings and financial performance leading to player drain and the Trans Tasman talent gulf.

Thankfully, the thriving of the game around the world guarantees a minimum level of significance for the game in Australia, hedging against even the most negligent management of the game domestically, and so we can assume that the Wallabies will always exist.

However, the solution to strengthening rugby in Australia essentially mandates the formation of a more stable domestic competition. The competition should form a genuine connection with its fanbase who will support them through meaningful fixtures, and align pathways for the next generation to aspire to supporting and representing.

An idea thrown around involves the implementation of a multi – division competition structure with promotion and relegation. Unfortunately, this model is not financially viable in Australia currently, or in the near future. A unique challenge faced by Australia is its relatively low population density, which inflates overheads for travel expenses as the most appropriate home bases for Australian sports franchises; its biggest cities, are greatly geographically dispersed.

Furthermore, with the relatively low profile of Rugby in the country today, the game’s administrators are already feeling the squeeze with increasingly tight operating margins. As with any company, expansion or diversification via research and development, or expansion into new markets, must be supported by existing profitable products and divisions, with the goal for them to eventually become self sufficient.

Rugby and sports management and strategy guru Mark Evans, in his illuminating interview with Jim Hamilton on the Rugby Pod , analyses the drawbacks of the promotion and relegation system, contrasting the financial woes of the English Premiership’s London based clubs with the proliferating NRL competition.

Evans stresses the need for the entity of the League to be fundamentally financially viable; profitable, in order to be able to withstand the losses that will inevitably ensue upon expansion. Speaking in 2022, he refers to the NRL’s now recently introduced expansion side, the Dolphins, and how only the strength of the NRL itself produced the capital to invest in a new side.

Simultaneously, he critiques the irresponsible ‘spray and pray’ approach of Rugby’s English Premiership, bankrolled by wealthy benefactors whose goodwill sustains entire professional franchises. He points out that both “The Prem” and the United States’ Major League Soccer competitions began in 1996 with ten teams a piece, and yet in the years that followed, the Major League has grown to 32 teams, whilst The Prem remains at ten.

Evans highlights the need to grow the size of “the pie”, as opposed to individual clubs trying to increase the size of their respective slice; an old Business 101 adage that seems self explanatory yet is remarkably topical given the unprofessional management of some of the basket case Premiership clubs and, more recently, the Melbourne Rebels. Following on from this, Evans expresses strong support for a closed league, with the potential for expansion when viable, but without promotion or relegation, even in the far more population dense England.

The elimination of promotion and relegation means that the current configuration of Super Rugby is closer to its optimal form than it could be otherwise. Yet with its decline in quality, interest, relevance and value, there’s clearly room for improvement.

In spite of all of its downfalls, Super Rugby still is the arena providing the high standard of tier 2 rugby within which New Zealand and Australia harden their best players for the test match battlefield. A restructure should retain the benefits of a high standard of Rugby in the Pacific, that was once the envy of the rugby world, whilst addressing its flaws.

Climbing up the chain of causality, these flaws stem from a decline in viewership, due to the imbalanced competition, and lacklustre narrative and tribalism. A successful restructure could certainly balance the relative strength of the competition’s teams, recapture the missing tribalism and do so in a way that remains compatible with each nation’s domestic competitions.

The first step is to end Super Rugby. The optimal time to do this might not be today, but rather after the Lions series in 2025, or Australia’s home world cup in 2027. But I firmly believe that in its current shape, the competition is a square peg being forced into a round hole – financially, culturally and logistically, and that it’s a bandaid that needs to be ripped off.

Next, Australia and New Zealand are each to reinstate their respective domestic competitions. For the Kiwis, I’m of course talking about the NPC, which is to be unpacked from its truncated, compromised form, and restored as the vertebrae of Kiwi Rugby.

For Australia, this is a slightly more complicated matter, due to of course the absence of said domestic competition… But, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity” said Einstein once, and indeed the blank canvas presents an opportunity to design the optimal Australian domestic competition. One that provides the quality of rugby necessary to breed a Wallaby side capable of rescuing back the Bledisloe, whilst capturing the hearts of the Aussie public, and remaining scalable enough to grow in the future.

Enter: an eight team professional Australia wide rugby competition, because eight teams is the minimum number of teams for any self respecting professional sports league. And it’s going to have an immediate sense of burning tribalism, because it’s going to be comprised of Sydney and Brisbane’s top clubs.

Blindly imitating and idolising Rugby League is rightfully critiqued. But maturely recognising the areas in which, as the more prolific and culturally entrenched football code in Australia, it has excelled, in contrast to Rugby’s own shortcomings in Australia, is another. In decades gone by, the NSWRFL gradually morphed from essentially a Sydney based Rugby League competition into, by the 80s, a national one. Throughout this time, old clubs were not scrapped to accommodate the new scale of the expanded competition, but were retained. Despite losing a few along the way, many of today’s clubs including the Roosters, Tigers and Rabbitohs can trace their history back to foundational clubs from 1908, or several decades later in the case of the Dragons, Sea Eagles, Eels and more.

Rugby could similarly capitalise on the ready made, preexisting loyalties of its historically healthy “third tier” club rugby scene by elevating some of its clubs into the new Tier 2 professional franchises. As a New South Welshman myself, it’s hard to imagine a more venomous rivalry than that of the Easts ‘Beasties’ and the Western Sydney Two Blues. And whilst not as familiar with the geopolitical boundaries and loyalties of Brisbane, I imagine there’s an equally compelling equivalent between Brisbane’s Norths and Souths, or Easts and Wests.

As traditional Australian rugby strongholds home to the nation’s densest clusters of rugby followers, these clubs will deservedly represent a geographically disproportionate allocation of professional rugby franchises in the country. Crucially, this does not mean the competition cannot grow outside of these boundaries in the future, just as the origination of Rugby League in Sydney did not stop it penetrating other markets such as regional NSW and QLD, once, of course, its “pie” grows.

The allocation of the remaining four teams is arguably more contentious. I for one believe that in an ideal world, the ACT Brumbies, Australia’s greatest pro Rugby club, and the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels, should live on in our new domestic competition. Representing more atomic geographical areas, they fit neatly into the scale of the new competition and can build on their existing legacies and cultures.

This leaves an eighth team, for which there are definitely many viable candidates. Another expansion side in a new, rugby naive city such as Adelaide could be a step too far for the code, which dearly needs to reinforce its foundations. The fate of the Fijian Drua, who regularly draw the biggest round robin crowds in Super Rugby Pacific for their home fixtures, is a little up in the air due to this restructure, and I would happily settle for them making up the numbers. Newcastle – Maitland is the seventh most populus urban area in the country, which is why the impressive Hunter Wildfires would be the next candidate from clubland to be reborn as a professional franchise. Meanwhile, rugby generally enjoys a proud history as an important part of the cultural fabric of many areas of country New South Wales (and also Queensland). The Central West, untainted by an NRL club, could be a great candidate.

Measures will certainly be implemented to address the valid concern with compromising strong club competitions to prop up the lacklustre division above them. Firstly, the creation of professional franchises from existing clubs should not necessarily cease their involvement at their current level. If it does, and, for instance, the Two Blues continue to compete at the Shute Shield level whilst also being represented in the national competition, sufficient corporate structure and governance witchcraft will be conducted to ensure that the chosen clubs elevated are not privileged by this, and that the spoils will be divided evenly amongst all clubs.

Alternatively, if the clubs do withdraw from the Shute Shield and Hospital Cup respectively, they should remain adequately geographically represented by a neighbour, or replaced by an equivalent club from the division below. It’s extremely debatable whether or not the Beasties are adequately geographically represented by Randwick, or whether the Blacktown Scorpions slotting into the Shute Shield to replace the promoted Two Blues would really be as seamless or trivial as it sounds. For every obvious logistical or administrative reason as to why this is unrealistic, there are many more intangible and cultural reasons why this may never.

But without the establishment of a genuine domestic competition, the game in Australia will continue to struggle at all levels. And to reiterate, the evolution of local clubs into professional franchises offers the benefits of instant tribalism for existing fans, and has not only been done before, but has also been shown to cultivate great culture in the case of the NRL.

And finally, the Super Reboot will entail the launch of the Pacific Rugby Championship, the international club competition where the cream of the crop from not only Australia and New Zealand, but additionally Japan, and any Pacific Islands franchises that may be accommodated in the new structure, will face off. Mirroring the knockout structure of the European Championship, this competition will of course capture the stakes and intensity characteristic of Super Rugby, whilst capitalising on the enormous Japanese market.

The tournament provides the same benefits as the existing Super Rugby structure, whilst critically not impacting the healthy domestic competitions of Japan and, until recently, New Zealand, and, eventually, Australia. Both the domestic competitions of the respective nations, and this international Asia Pacific championship, do not necessarily have to be as long as their Northern hemisphere equivalents, and should be as long or short as required to accommodate the test rugby calendars.

This new proposed Australian domestic comp should provide more competitive fixtures than that of today’s Super Rugby. The reason to expect this result is because, accounting for its larger talent pool, New Zealand’s player base is appropriately spread amongst its fourteen NPC teams. Meanwhile, Australia’s relatively smaller talent pool are more tightly consolidated amongst its eight sides.

To supplement this, I firmly believe that the Australian and New Zealand administrations both need to be more open minded to cross border contracting possibilities, or, as they say where I’m from, grow the f–k up. With the best talent from both nations starting to dribble over to Japan and beyond in search of more lucrative contracts, I believe that both nations’ test squads would benefit by allowing their players to represent their country, if contracted with any franchise in Australia, New Zealand or Japan, potentially after a minimum period of service domestically such as four to six years. Whilst it’s reasonable that the cross pollination of playing and coaching talent across borders may overall be favourable for Australia, at least given the current weakness of the Wallabies, this will grow the entire pie and will be in everyone’s best interests.

Also, given the radical nature of this proposal, I believe that Trans Tasman contracting would be a simple, immediately actionable improvement that would improve the quality of Super and test rugby. The surplus Kiwi talent could be more usefully deployed in Australia to help balance squad depth, increasing the All Black selection pool as a result. Furthermore, for any Kiwi franchise willing to sacrifice enough pride to sign an Australian, that player would of course benefit from the exposure to the sacred Kiwi rugby IP.

So, at the end of the day, I’m just a life long Tahs fan who wants to hate the Reds again. But to be able to do so, we’ve got to grow the pie, or I won’t even have a team to support any longer, let alone one to hate. So let’s rip the bandaid off.

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