How SANZAAR want to fix Super Rugby - Green and Gold Rugby
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How SANZAAR want to fix Super Rugby

How SANZAAR want to fix Super Rugby

Part II (Proposed Idea put forward by SANZAAR)

Following from my article yesterday we come to the complicated bit. Many fans have talked about numerous ideas, from reverting back to the round robin nature of Super 14, to returning to the three conference structure with more derby matches, to cutting South Africa out of the competition entirely, to taking the format back to Super 12. SANZAAR are planning to meet in February of this year before the start of the season to determine changes to the format, with most of the talks focused on recommendations made by consultants group Accenture, who suggested on cutting the number of teams down to sixteen.

Of the two teams to be considered, many have been pointing fingers at the Southern Kings and the Western Force as the teams in line to be cut. While many have also put a case for the Sunwolves to be cut, I definitely don’t see that happening in the short-term, especially given the potential the club has as being a financial springboard for SANZAAR into the Asian Market. So, if this is indeed what SANZAAR is considering, let’s examine the cases for the Kings and Force:

The Case of The Kings

Will national politics undo South Africa's bid?

Will national politics undo South Africa’s bid?

Season Pld W D L F A +/- Pts Pos
2013 16 3 1 12 298 564 –266 24 15th
2016 15 2 0 13 282 684 –402 9 17th

The Kings record at Super Rugby does not make for pretty viewing. Over their two seasons, they have amassed a paltry five wins, and have consistently had some of the worst defence in the competition. In 2016, they conceded the largest number of points and have the largest points differential in the competitions history, at -402. In nine of their matches last year, the Kings lost by a point margin greater than thirty. Adding to their woeful on-field performances, the fan base of the club has been dwindling quickly over the 2016 Super Rugby season. The club averaged crowds of only 5,000 per game over the whole season, easily the lowest of all the clubs in Super Rugby.

And then there’s the players: currently, only one player, Waylon Murray, in the current Kings squad has gone on to represent the Springboks, and that was ten years ago when he played for the Sharks.  As a franchise, the Kings are still to even provide a local player to the Springboks.

Not only have the Kings been consistently woeful, but their original feeder clubs: The Eastern Province Kings in the Currie Cup, and the SWD Eagles and Border Bulldogs in the former Vodacom Cup, have consistently underperformed. The Eastern Province Kings have consistently finished in the bottom two for the last four years, and, along with the Bulldogs, have been dogged by serious financial problems, which saw the club receive a rescue package from the Port Elizabeth High Court in 2015. The Kings franchise has, since November 2015, been managed by SA Rugby.

With financial instability, terrible on-field performances, and low attendances, how on earth have the Kings kept going? Well, in their defence, they haven’t really been given a chance to prove themselves, and how they go this year will probably be a telling factor as to whether they have the chops to go far in this competition. It is promising though that, judging by the upbeat attitude of coach Deon Davids, they will be more prepared this season. Honestly though, whether they go well or not, I doubt the Kings will be cut for one simple reason: politics.

Many in the Republic were vocal about the influence of racial player quotas last year in SA Rugby, and the Kings are very much part of that picture. I know, as an Aussie and an outsider on this, I am touching on a very controversial topic. Racial issues are still very much alive and well in South Africa; and the combination of politics in sport seems set to undermine the game. The Kings seem almost symbolic of what the quota is trying to achieve (opening up the game for all to play), but also of the failures of that system. At the end of the day, you need a team that can be competitive, win games, and instil pride. Given the issues in SA Rugby right now, I would ask, will the Kings honestly help the rugby cause in South Africa? Or is it doing more harm than good?

Verdict: There isn’t many points in favour of keeping the Kings in currently. Quite honestly, it’s do or die for them. If they underperform again in 2017, I would argue that the Kings should be out.

The Case of the Western Force

Season Pos Pld W D L F A +/- BP Pts
2006 14th 13 1 2 10 223 373 −150 4 12
2007 7th 13 6 1 6 276 282 −6 6 32
2008 8th 13 7 0 6 247 278 −31 5 33
2009 8th 13 6 1 6 328 275 53 10 36
2010 13th 13 4 0 9 258 364 −106 3 19
2011 12th 16 5 2 9 333 416 −83 5 37
2012 14th 16 3 0 13 306 440 −134 7 27
2013 13th 16 4 1 11 267 366 −99 5 31
2014 8th 16 9 0 7 343 393 −50 4 40
2015 15th 16 3 0 13 245 384 −139 7 19
2016 16th 15 2 0 13 260 441 −181 5 13

I’ll start off by being honest: to many who read G&GR, it’s no secret I have been an avid supporter of keeping the Western Force for a long time. But I won’t deny the Force have struggled, especially over the last two seasons. They also have amassed a poor 5 wins and, after 11 years of financial self-support, were (similarly to the Kings) taken over by the ARU near the end of last season. Performance and profit are the order of the day in Super Rugby, and the Force certainly have not been performing on either fronts for the last few years.

But, that’s where the similarities between the Kings and Force end. While the Kings have not had the chance to show their worth in the competition, the Force have. In four of their eleven seasons, the Force have managed to equal or win more than they have lost. While that doesn’t seem impressive, by comparison, the Rebels are still to even do that, their fellow 2006 expansion club, The Cheetahs, have only done that once, and in twenty-one seasons, the Lions have only managed that five times.  It has not helped that since 2011, The Force have been managed by Richard Graham and Michael Foley, both coaches who had little success across multiple clubs at Super Rugby level. But, even when they aren’t winning, the Force have often still been competitive, with a third of their losses in the last three seasons being by less than seven points. They have always lacked that ability to finish off games: an ability dented by inadequate coaching, but also due to the travelling they have to do.

David Wessels has been appointed head coach for the rest of the Force season

David Wessels has been appointed head coach for the rest of the Force season

But that competitiveness remains, and that has led to the Force to having one of the most loyal fan bases in the competition, the ‘Sea of Blue.’ While fans have often complained about their inability to win, the Force have regularly averaged a turnout of over 10,000 per game last year, which is impressive considering they didn’t even win a game at home. In 2014 though (when they were winning), they regularly averaged over 15,000, a higher average than the Brumbies and Waratahs!

While the Force had a woeful regular season, the rest of the year has been a lot better. With talks of their existence on the line, I have never seen a club so determined to ensure that existence is secured. In a bid to become financially self-supporting again, the Force launched the ‘Own The Force’ campaign, which allows fans to have a stake hold in the club. This tactic has proved very successful for NFL clubs in America, and has also been for the Force, who are less than three hundred off reaching their target of 5,000 shares.

While the appointment of Dave ‘Blood’ Wessels as the head coach was a controversial one, Wessels has been surrounding himself with plenty of coaching experience, including Alan Gaffney, Shaun Berne and Joe Barakat. They also have been recruiting smart, with Billy Meakes, Alex Newsome, Curtis Rona and Isi Naisarani coming into the ranks. While the Kings are acting upbeat, the Force have taken a more aggressive, non-nonsense approach: they are there to win games. According to Baraket “when you talk about rebuilding periods you can afford to lose. At this stage, we can’t afford to lose.”

But probably, most important for the argument of keeping the Force in is that the talent they have unearthed in the west is starting to come through. No clearer is this the case than the performance of their feeder team, the Perth Spirit, who won the NRC last year with a squad mostly made up of players from the local premier grade (beating teams like NSW Country who were stocked with Super Rugby talent). And that was their second grand final in three years! In additional, four players in the Force squad are current Wallabies, with another five having played for the men in gold in the past.

Verdict: I have painted a rosy picture, but at the end of the day, the Force, like the Kings, need to win games. 2017 has to be successful. But the Force have proven in the past that they have the talent to do it, and if they do that again, I would keep them in.

****

While I admire SANZAAR’s efforts of trying to improve the Super Rugby product, I fear that cutting the wrong teams may be even more to the detriment of the fan base. To me, the issue doesn’t just lie in the teams, but in the formatting of the competition. To me, there is only one logical solution: a redesign of the current format.

 

  • I’m glad they are looking at cutting teams as an option but is it really an option? Do they have the balls to say they got it wrong and take a step back? I just can’t see it happening?

    Changes to the conference system might be their first move and if they are really pushed into a corner they might entertain cutting teams.

    Do you think just cutting the Kings is an option?

    • Muzz

      Sully I don’t think they’ll cut teams either. I think cutting teams was but one of many options identified for super rugby. Although this option has been well publicized.
      A couple of things also in the Force’s favour are the timeslot for home games and the development of their juniors. WA schools and sevens teams are competitive with the best from NSW and Qld which wasn’t the case 10 years ago.

      • MST

        SANZAARS position since September 2016 has been made fairly clear and public by its CEO Andy Marinos that “Super Rugby cannot be short-sighted.” It is already looking ahead five years to it next expansion for new television contracts. It may bring in two more teams from two new territories, adding to the five countries now taking part in the competition. No teams will be cut until after the current broadcast deal expires.

        In mid January (2017) Marinos also publicly endorsed the Kings going forward and defended their 2016 performances:

        “There was a lot of noise made about the Kings before the start of the 2016 season,” Marinos told the sarugbymag website.

        “Many felt they wouldn’t be ready, and one only needed to look down their team list to realise they were in for a tough time.

        “Of course, one also needed to realise the challenges they had faced in the build-up to the season, and how they had battled to attract a number of players to their franchise. “We’re hoping that they will stabilise in future. They are back in the tournament, and will benefit by having more time to prepare for the 2017 season and beyond, under the auspices of SA Rugby.”

        • Honiball

          If SANZAAR are looking to further expand, do they also then consider tiering the competition with relegation / promotion to allow for home and away in both competitions. With two new teams and a top and second tier, ten teams in each tier, 9 home games and 9 away games.

    • Nicholas Wasiliev

      Hi Sully,

      The basis for this section was made going on the recommendations made by consultants Accenture, who were brought on to examine potential ways to improve the competition, and who came to the conclusion of cutting teams. Even though I have written this article, I for one am not keen on the idea of cutting teams.
      If there HAD to be a team cut though, I would argue it should be the Kings, given their ongoing issues. That being said, if the Kings play well this year, I’ll happily be proven wrong.

    • You have to wonder what question Accenture are actually answering. I’m guessing it’s “How can we get back to making more money?” rather than the (related) question “How can we get back to a more exciting product?”

      Cutting two poor teams, with poor performance, and I’m guessing poor attendance and more importantly poor TV viewing figures is an obvious route. It reduces overheads and you get a better ROI, in theory plus, because you have better teams left in, you get more exciting matches and a more exciting product to sell straight away.

      There are, potentially, other benefits too. If you cut the Force, expand into the Americas, you could move the Sunwolves into the Australian league where they still travel but it’s basically North-South and they play in Japan. You could give Los Jaguares two of a USA, a Canadian or a Uruguayan team and look to having them travel less crazily and be less bone tired with their matches than the current rotation. If the USA is part of that, you potentially get a toe-hold into a much bigger TV market. The teams from Australasia would also get a 2 week away tour one year and if in time you add a fourth team so it’s two weeks every year, once in S. America, once in N. America it’s suddenly not such a nightmare.

  • swingpass

    nic good work, except the Rebels have only been around since 2011 not 2006

    • Dorothy Ball

      I initially misread that too, I think due to punctuation, but I believe he’s referring to the Cheetahs as the fellow 2006 club.

  • Kiwi rugby lover

    Nice write up Nick. Your point about the coaches at the Force are very relevant. I personally think the money the ARU (global ARU as the states are also to blame) has spent on bringing in underperforming league players has been a real waste of money that could have been spent on developing coaches (and referees). It’s all very well having players but if they are coached poorly, or if the matches are refereed poorly then the player development will not occur. I know NZ invested heavily in both coaches and referees some years ago and I’d suggest that was money well spent and has had a big impact on the skill level of the players which has increased the depth available. England have a policy where they want all club coaches qualified as level 2 coaches and are funding this and that is also having a marked improvement overall. I know the publicity around these code hoppers is good for the ARU and they have a hell of a battle on their hands in the publicity war but I think money spent on developing coaches and referees would be a much better investment.

  • Andrew Luscombe

    Super Rugby has no draft, and no competition wide salary cap.

    The national unions keep a lot of players from moving, so there is no free market in players. The national unions top up some player salaries so that even if TV money is equally distributed to teams it does not lead to equalisation of player talent.

    There is no promotion/relegation to get rid of poorly performing teams and include well performing teams from new markets to match the competition to the market.

    In short, it is the only professional sports league in the world that does not have a number of features to create competitivness. It has made itself uncompetitive internally, and almost unable to add competitive teams.

    The short season results in far less income than other leagues.

    Given all of the above, it should not be surprising that it is having problems.

    While I don’t like the format, I think that the format is about 5th on the list of problems, and the number of teams is 6th.

    It will not succeed as a profitable sports league until it is run like one. It is currently run as a development league for national teams. NZ uses it well in this respect.

    • All of a draft, a salary cap and relegation/promotion have problems.

      Two of the countries have strict policies about playing at home to qualify to play for your country because they pay their players less well and rely on the “honour of the cap” and you’d have to change their rules (the “Giteau rule” wouldn’t apply to drafted players). They might agree to change them to be like Argentina’s “you must play within Super Rugby” but a Kiwi centre playing in South Africa (say) is unlikely to get the support from the NZRU that one playing locally does so my guess is it weakens the national sides and you won’t get the national RFUs to agree to it. An Aussie centre playing in New Zealand may or may not get picked for the Wobs, but would struggle to build a partnership with his Aussie potential teammates outside the training camps and test arena. That’s not always a disaster but, looking at the All Blacks, they usually put new players in with Super Rugby team mates around them as much as possible and they flourish in that environment.

      Both France and Aviva have salary caps. There are a lot of allegations that they’re regularly breached and, certainly in England, investigations say “technical breaches have been discovered and corrected and will be monitored in future.” Which seems to mean they’ve occurred but we’re not going to punish anyone… There are ways around salary caps without national contracting (which the NZRU won’t like giving up) which are legal too, Toulon don’t pay their stars in excess of the salary cap, but their owner organises lucrative advertising contracts for the stars that aren’t club salaries. All legal and very attractive, on top of the higher pay that the French league offers when compared to Super League and the Pro 12 etc. You certainly could legislate for it better but it gets trickier and trickier, to the point your stars will just say “Stuff that, I’m off.”

      Relegation/Promotion in rugby (and football) often leads to a culture of perennial strugglers and teams that bounce up and down, and perennial locks for the top slots too. There can be very slow changes over time – in the Aviva, Exeter were promoted about 10 years ago and are “suddenly” a serious contender as a top 4 finisher last year and looking like it this year again, but Bristol (promoted this year) and Worcester (promoted a couple of years ago) are scrapping it out to avoid being relegated. London Welsh (promoted last year) went straight back down and Bristol are still favourites to do that. Newcastle are trying to emulate Exeter’s climb but we shall see, and that’s pushed Sale, who had hoped they’d advanced out of being fighting to avoid the drop to being the closest target above Worcester. They look like they’re safe, but a couple of bad weekends and that could change. There aren’t really surprises out there, except perhaps Leicester are doing quite badly – that is, they’re in fifth rather than in the top four. I don’t follow the Top 14 as closely, but you get a similar top 4 most years, at least since Toulon emerged with all their stars about a decade ago, it’s now a perm four from 5 situation most years at the top.

      It’s kind of ironic that the nation you identify that uses Super League well as a development league (which I agree with) certainly last year produced four of the best eight sides in the tournament and arguably the five most entertaining sides for a neutral to watch as well. (The Lions would round out my top six.) Perhaps the way forward is not to tinker with the format but to encourage the other nations to follow in New Zealand’s approach and develop their international stars at Super Rugby level so there is a general raising of the standard of play and competition. Argentina are already explicitly doing this, but they’re also building their player depth and have left a lot of their stars out with their new selection policy and have a horrible travel schedule as the only South American team. 2017 might be too soon, but give them another year and I’d expect both Los Jaguares and Los Pumas to show the benefits, and when they do click, they are really good.

      • Andrew Luscombe

        All good points. So is the conclusion that Super Rugby is going to fail?

        With regard to promotion/ relegation, in England there is a massive difference in resources between the top and 2nd levels. They are run by different organisations and there is no contact between the teams. The RFU subsidises the top level far more than the 2nd even though they run the 2nd level. It is probably the worst example of a promotion/ relegation system that exists. It benefits about 6 teams to the detriment of the sport as a whole. NZ does it much better in their domestic comp. England also has rugby league taking up some of the spectator and player market of the 2nd division of rugby union. There are many way it can work better.

        I must say though that I don’t think it is the solution for Super Rugby. I was just pointing out that other leagues have many more things in place to help them have a competitive competition matched to the market but Super Rugby has very little.

        Ireland is the other country that has followed NZ down that path. It is doing well also in a similar context. While that approach can help some teams, I don’t see it as maximising the potentional of rugby as a whole. Quite the opposite in fact.

        • I didn’t watch as much of the NZ domestic competition this year as usual, but it’s not really a two tier contest in the traditional sense. I know there is an upper and lower tier and movement between them, but there’s a lot of cross-division matches too from what I remember. I also don’t think you can fall out of the bottom of the lower division? Something like that would be better than the Aviva and Top 14 systems, I agree.

          I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom as a development league. Irish rugby at both the provincial and national level has improved since they restructured in this model. Welsh rugby did a half-hearted botch job, the regions are in financial trouble and the WRU is basically forcing them into a situation where they’re going to do it properly by playing with the purse strings. But Welsh rugby over the last decade has also improved greatly. It might not be back to the golden years of the ’70’s and there are definitely issues against the Southern Hemisphere sides but they have a wonderful record in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s hard to say which round it’s working with Scottish rugby, but it seems to be working for them too, over the last 2-3 years. It’s certainly a model that can work well in countries besides New Zealand.

          But I don’t think Super Rugby is going to fail. Throwing out two weak teams, as I’ve commented elsewhere is a viable, if not popular, option. The overheads go down and you concentrate the good players into fewer teams, so the quality of the product rises. If the overall quality rises you attract more viewers and revenues rise, and you can cope with one poor team like The Sunwolves as an investment for the future and the potential market.

          Restructuring the stupid leagues and conferences would help too. A simple round-robin would be nice. It worked for a long, long time, and then they tinkered and viewership fell. Coincidence? I don’t think so. You don’t actually have cut teams to have the round-robin structure, although you probably would. With the number of teams we’ve got now a classic top-8 playing off in quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals, although it would work ok with 16 teams too. Higher place team plays at home, no conference guaranteed a place – if you can’t get a side in to the top 8 you really don’t deserve it. Last year we’d have ended up with the same 8 teams on log points but, depending on the tie-breakers the order for the quarter-finals would have been 1 Hurricanes, 2= Lions, 2= Highlanders, 4= Stormers, 4= Chiefs, 6 Crusaders, 7= Sharks, 7= Brumbies. This could give the same line-up as last year’s quarter finals (but the Brumbies would play away), or Canes v Brumbies, Lions v Sharks, Highlanders v Saders, Chiefs v Stormers (in Hamilton) and a lot less travel.

          There are ways to tweak the competition and improve it without wholesale changes IMO.

        • Andrew Luscombe

          More good points again. There are many improvements to be made without wholesale changes.

          But there is a fundamental issue not addressed by any proposal I’ve seen so far – the geographical distribution of playing ability does not match the audience and potential audience. Imagine if the NHL effectively forced Canadians to play in Canada. The competition would have to have half as many teams or 3/4 of them woul be thrashed every week. Either way the competition would attract half as many fans. Super Rugby has that problem. I believe the teams have half the audience they could have. World Rugby has that problem.

  • Daverugby

    I would like to see it expanded and split in two conferences, with the top teams making a playoff against each other. A relegation conference system would cause teams in the lower conference to lose support which is what they are trying to avoid. I would also support a draft

  • Kokonutcreme

    Cutting teams based on current form and results is short sighted – even for a team like the Kings. Sacking them after three seasons serves only to prove the point they were set up to fail from the outset.

    In any competition there are teams that consistently feature at the top, middle and bottom of the ladder. Occasionally there are seasons where teams overperform and underperform and over time cellar dwellers are able to turn their fortunes around through changes of administrators, coaches, better talent development and retention and increased revenue.

    In the history of Super rugby foundation teams like the Bulls, Reds, Chiefs, Highlanders, Hurricanes, Waratahs, Cats/Lions have had their history of problems on and off the field and at various points in time would have been worthy of consideration for cutting loose based on their results.

    They have all now (apart from the Lions) won a championship.

    I still don’t understand why we can’t have a round robin tournament given it wouldn’t increase the length of the current season nor teams travel requirements, however to establish a season long enough to attract the kind of sponsorship and broadcasting revenue all SANZAAR nations rely upon to retain their elite playing group, I don’t see how reducing the number of teams will help.

    Certainly there is a difference in quality of matches between established teams and expansion teams but show me a competition that doesn’t experience the same disparity? Rather than cut developing teams loose, their governing unions need to review how effective they are in supporting those teams?

    Paul Luscombe’s excellent point about the difference between geographical distribution of players matching the current and potential viewing audiences highlights that Super rugby is essentially still a nationalist competition and not a true club competition like the French Top 14, or Aviva premiership. National interests (particularly in NZ) reign supreme over everything else regarding player eligibility for national representation and playing for a Super rugby team.

    On one hand I understand completely the NZRU’s policy and retention of player talent is critical to retaining their competitive advantage, however that also hamstrings any endeavours to promote players signing for teams in other SANZAAR countries to help spread the gospel of Super rugby.

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@Nick_Wasiliev

Die-hard Brumbies/Country Eagles fan now based in Sydney. Author, anthropologist, musician and second-rower trying to kick start a writing career in an increasingly bonkers world...

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