Super complicated: sprawling southern hemisphere championship comes under fire
Too big, too complicated and the games aren’t great either – the ever-expanding Super Rugby competition is coming under heavy fire after spreading to two new continents this season.
The ambitious tournament started in the 1980s as a six-team amateur affair known as the South Pacific Championship before evolving into the 18-club behemoth which today straddles 16 time zones.
The entry of teams from Argentina and Japan may be good for broadcast revenues, and it could point the way ahead as rugby eyes expansion into new markets.
But quality and attendances have dipped, and many have been left bemused by an unfathomable four-conference system which seems to disadvantage the strongest country, New Zealand.
Eye-watering results like the 92-17 humiliation suffered by Japanese newcomers the Sunwolves against the Cheetahs, and the Jaguares’ 73-27 win over fellow debutants the Southern Kings, haven’t helped.
Former Australia coach Eddie Jones, who is now at the helm of England, spoke for many when he said: “I watch most of the games but some of the games put me to sleep.
“I don’t think the standard’s great this year. Having 18 teams in the competition, it’s really dropped the standards.”
Added to that is a punishing travel schedule which has left the Sunwolves, for instance, playing home games not just in Tokyo but also in Singapore, as well as touring South Africa.
New Zealand fans are annoyed that despite occupying the top four of the top five places on the overall points tally, they are demoted below other teams when conference weighting is factored in.
And many Australian supporters believe their talent pool is spread too thin as their five teams struggle to make an impact.
"For all the chest pounding about the benefits of international expansion, the jury is very much out over whether this awkward format really works, especially in Australia," columnist Robert Craddock wrote in The Australian.
Prominent New Zealand rugby columnist Phil Gifford said Super Rugby "has now been diluted and complicated".
It appears they are stuck with the current system for another season at least, although governing body SANZAAR is studying more changes – and quite possibly, further expansion – for 2018.
Fairfax New Zealand's stuff.co.nz reported this week that SANZAAR has hired a consultancy firm and over the next six months will map out a 10-year strategic vision.
It said expressions of interest for potential new teams would then be sought, with possible bids from South America, North America, the Pacific, Europe and other parts of Asia.
"You've got to be open-minded when you go into a process," SANZAAR chief executive Andy Marinos was quoted as saying.
"Is it a continual expansion? Is it an expansion in two conferences? Is it a reduction and creating a two-tier system? There's a whole lot of different permutations one has to consider as you go through a process like this if you want to get the best result.
"Certain countries may reduce and some may retain or expand."
He added that "2018 for me is more achievable should we look to expand".
"To try put a new team up in 2017 you're not giving them enough time to prepare," he said.
Other participants are also looking at the positives – especially the Sunwolves and Argentina's Jaguares, who are seizing their chance at what has been regarded as rugby's premier club competition.
"There were expectations of our team at the start and we've already exceeded those," said coach Mark Hammett, who recovered from the 92-17 mauling to register their first win.
"We set the goal of a win so it was nice to do that against the Jaguares recently.
"You're talking about a team who were expected to lose every game. And while we had one very bad blowout, there were also three or four games where we came just a few points away from winning."