What's wrong with Super Rugby - Green and Gold Rugby

What’s wrong with Super Rugby

What’s wrong with Super Rugby

Super Rugby is very much in a quandary, if 2016 is anything to go by. The ratings were down, the overall attendance was down, and many felt like the competition had lost its way. With those issues came a whole lot of fan backlash, calling for the cutting of teams, changes to conferences systems, and accusations that SANZAAR is more focused on the money than the rugby.

I’ll be clear right out the gate: I get why SANZAAR is doing what they are doing. The Northern Hemisphere teams are cashed up, and in the last few years has emerged as a legitimate challenger in taking many players from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Pacific Island nations. Players are very easily swayed to go over to that competition with the offer of higher pay and other perks. While I personally question whether such a move by Northern Hemisphere rugby will be beneficial in growing their own talent stocks, from SANZAAR’s perspective, the only logical solution is to expand the TV product (and broadcast fees) to counteract the challenge.

But, the expansion of last year has turned many off the tournament altogether. Super Rugby was once one of the most entertaining international competitions in the world, but if there are going to be changes to our current format in 2018, it must be done properly to ensure the negatives of the current format are removed, while still keeping the positives.

This is a pretty massive undertaking, which is why I’m going to stretch this out over a few days. In the first section, today, I will look at what I think the big issues with Super Rugby are. In the second section, I will outline the main proposal that has been talked about that SANZAAR may use to fix this, before the final section in which I will outline my opinion on what can be done to improve the game, while also setting the groundwork for future growth to counteract the Northern Hemisphere challenge.

Part I (What’s wrong with Super Rugby?)

Everyone has different opinions on this, so by all means get talking, post your own opinion, and get the ball rolling.  First, we must identify what the current negatives are because, my word, there are plenty:

1. Current system is confusing as hell:


Tahs Scrum

Confusion reigns – on and off the field       (Photo by Keith McInnes)

Oh god! What a mess the current system is! Currently, Super Rugby is divided into two groups (Africa and Australasia), each with two conferences. The top 4 teams are decided from the winners of these four groups, with three wildcard spots going to the Australasian Group, and one to the African Group. These top eight teams then play in the finals based on where they finished on a combined overall table.

So, to put that in perspective, you need seven tables to work out all of this. Not only is it complicated, but also very unfair. The Brumbies, the top finishing team in a severely underperforming Australian conference last year, finished in 4th with 43 points, and played a home quarterfinal against the top wild-card team, the Highlanders, who had 52 points and finished second in a strong NZ conference. It was a huge disservice to the Highlanders that, despite clearly having the better season, they still had to travel away during the entire finals series. And such a move cost a good team from potentially making the finals.

Not only that but under the current system one South African conference misses out every year on playing the Kiwis, who are without a doubt the toughest teams in the competition. This means that many SA teams have an easier run to the finals compared with their Australian counterparts who had to play the Kiwis all year round. In addition to that it doesn’t benefit the Kiwis either because if their teams perform well, they still may have a tough away run in the finals against opposition who they should have finished higher than.  To put it simply, it’s complete bollocks.

2. Expansion Teams:

Andrew Duratalo leaps for the ball

Andrew Duratalo of the Sunvolves leaps for the ball

The whole reason for this new system in the first place is due to the three new teams: The Kings, Jaguares and Sunwolves. I, for one, love having the Pumas in the Rugby Championship, and despite their disappointing season last year (finishing 13th overall), it’s a no-brainer to think the Jaguares won’t do better this year. They gave it their best shot, and for their first ever season, 13th ain’t a bad result. By comparison, teams like the Kings, Force, Rebels, and even the Crusaders came last in their first seasons respectively.

However, I’m not so confident with the other expansion teams. The Kings (17th) and Sunwolves (18th) were woeful. It was clear those teams were out of their depth, and even struggled against the likes of the weaker South African and Australian teams. God forbid, the Sunwolves are up against the Kiwi teams this year, and I have a feeling even more thrashings may be dealt upon them.

3. Travel:

Speaking of the Sunwolves, the amount of travel hours they notched up last year were beyond incredible, and this year they face over 100,000km of travel and 11 weeks in hotels. Even Waratahs coach, Daryl Gibson wasn’t afraid to admit the tournament needs a reshuffle: “Those poor blokes. They’ll either be on a plane or all over the place.”

Travel can have a huge impact on players, especially on teams like the Sunwolves and Jaguares who are already struggling to compete. To have teams like the Sunwolves play in a ‘conference match’ on the far-end of the globe in Africa puts them at a disadvantage from the get go. But, its not like this hasn’t been an issue for teams in the past, such as for the Western Force. This also leads very nicely onto our next point…

4. The Issues with South Africa:

Photo courtesy of Keith McInnes

The Saffas are copping a battering.   (Photo courtesy of Keith McInnes)

Another reason for the tournament shuffle has been because of issues in the Republic. In the past, when Super Rugby had a three-conference structure, travel had often been an obstacle that had placed the South African teams at a disadvantage. Not only that, but political forces also began to affect the game in the Republic. As a result, since 2011, South African teams have only ever made it to the Grand Final twice, losing both times. By comparison, Kiwi teams had won the trophy four times, and Aussie teams had won it twice.

Now, with the restructuring of the game, the opposite has occurred. Now, one South African conference misses out on playing the hardest teams in the competition (in New Zealand), which means those teams effectively get a much easier run to the finals than the other African Group, and the Australian and New Zealand teams.

But this is to their detriment to not play the best. Last year, the Stormers, who finished top of the Africa 1 Group, went on to play the Chiefs in the Quarter Finals, their first Kiwi opposition. They lost 21-60. Even their coach, Robbie Fleck, said after the game that not playing against the best hurt his team. It didn’t allow the Stormers to properly prepare for the upbeat tempo Kiwi teams play. So, the current format doesn’t help them either!


In short, nobody is really benefiting from this format. It’s confusing, convoluted, difficult to manage and all over the place. So, what can be done to change this format?

  • CND

    I think it needs to go back to a 3 conference system, it makes no sense geographically to put the Sunwolves and Jaguares in the South African conference. Go back to a 3 conference system where the Sunwolves join the Australian conference, the Jagaures join the New Zealand conference. and South Africa have their own conference. Each team plays the teams in their conference twice, plus 3 teams from the other 2 conferences. playing a total of 16 games during the season. This also means significantly less travel for all teams. Finals could be either the top team from each conference plus 5 wildcards or to make it fairer the top 2 teams from each conference plus 2 wild cards.

    • npivag

      Agreed, Argentina and Japan are the losers here with travel, but I imagine the commercial benefits of having touring Kiwi sides every 2 years would be lucrative as NZ rugby has a lot of mystique in those nations.

    • The fundamental problem was not the introduction of the three extra teams. That much was manageable and as a stepping stone to a four conference system to include American and Canadian teams by 2020 was a worthwhile plan.

      The unsolveable mess was caused by SA demanding more finals places (they sure didn’t deserve it based on performance) and reduced travel for their teams. The only way this could be achieved was by installing four unbalanced conferences and then making the debutants (Sunwolves and Jaguares) travel extra km. Both those teams were set up to fail; and so they did in their first year.

      Three conferences with six teams each, with the Sunwolves and Jaguares alternating between the Australian and NZ conference each year would have meant better travel outcomes overall and way better outcomes in terms of game timing for TV. But, SA self interest won out. Sometimes the worst cowards are those who won’t take a stand and just go with the flow. IMO its Pulver’s low point in his stewardship of the ARU.

      Unless there is major surgery for 2018 (timing is right because the current system works on two year cycles) then we will see reduced fan roll-ups and lower TV ratings extending up to 2020, by which time the whole thing will have imploded.

      • Rebels3

        Haha, for some reason your comment on Pulver made me associate him with Malcolm Turnbull. Lacking the security and support of his team around him. Talks a game and says the right things but doesn’t overly convince the public leading to a stalemate in the national situation

        Papworth = The Greens

        John O’Neil = Labor

        Marto and Kearns = One Nation

        Matt Burke and Nick Farr Jones = Independents

        Maybe it’s time to turn the computer off and head home from ‘work’

  • Pearcewreck

    Great article Nick, all those points are good.
    I’ve felt for years that there is a big disconnect between the fans and Super Rugby, which your article alludes too.
    Here a few other points;
    1. Most Aussies still have no idea about the South African teams.
    2. Being only on Foxtel is a huge problem (nothing new there), and games at 2am AEST are in no-mans land.
    3. No true local derbies. Big Bash, League, AFL and even the A-League benefit from true local derbies. There are none in Aussie Super Rugby.

    Answers are:
    1. Super Rugby should be a shorter pool based comp, exactly like European Cup. 5 pools, 20 teams, all over in 9 weeks.This could keep South Africa and News Limited happy.
    2. Then Aust & NZ (maybe pacific islands and Japan as well, maybe not) should have a 15 week comp. This comp could be almost a mixture of teams from Super Rugby, like Brumbies, Force, Rebels, but instead of Waratahs & Reds, have 2 or 3 Sydney Teams, and 2 Brisbane teams.
    No South African teams in this comp, no games at 2am, and true local derbies.
    3. This Aust & NZ comp has too have some games on free-to-air, and maybe it should start in Feb, finish in May. Shortened Super Rugby starts mid June finishes Mid August.

    • Muzz

      I agree that Australian and NZ teams should form their own comp and play the Saffas et al in a champions league. Waratahs CEO Andrew Hore recently suggested something along these lines. I reckon Hore is a fuckin guru in rugby administration and a breath of fresh air. He speaks sense. Hopefully SANZAAR are listening because they will suffer through another confusing and convoluted season in 2017 where fan interest will not likely improve.

      • Pearcewreck

        Sorry, not convinced about Andrew Hore.
        I mean, only last year he said the Welsh regions should be included in Super Rugby!!
        Which is the complete opposite of what Super Rugby needs.

        • Muzz

          Ha ha! He said that? Maybe it was a smokescreen

        • Pearcewreck

          Smokescreen? Maybe.
          Maybe he had been smoking something …..

    • McWarren

      “No true local derbies.” What do you call the Reds v Tahs or Tahs v Brumbies?? I just don’t get the point you’re making there mate. Personally I’m sick of local derbies, you can almost correlate the Wallabies collapse with the increase in home derbies. We need to be playing the Kiwi’s and Saffa’s as much as possible.

      • Pearcewreck

        3 1/2 hours drive from Canberra to Sydney is not local.
        12 hours drive from Brisbane to Sydney is not local.

        Compared to true local derbies in all the other codes where away fans can easily travel across town to see their team play away.

        Maybe your definition of local is different to everyone else’s.

        1. relating or restricted to a particular area or one’s neighbourhood.

        • McWarren

          So you really mean Sydney and Melbourne teams having local derbies. The BBL, A-League, League, AFL all seem to do alright in Brisbane without a second Brisbane team. I’m no expert but I don’t think the A League have local derbies in Adelaide, Perth or Central Coast but there doing alright. We consider local derbies fellow Australian teams, but I guess we in the north have always thought of ourselves as residents of Australia not just of Brisbane or Mt Isa. I get what you mean, now, but are you pushing for a second team in Western Sydney and Geelong??

    • Rebels3

      As much as you have some nice ideas, you never will and i truly believe never could disband the only two traditional teams in the country. It would be a final dagger in the coffin. If we like it or not, Rugby in Australia will and always will be 1 team 1 state. I am happy with that as well. Tribalism is built through history and rivalry. In Australia there is no bigger rivalry than QLD v NSW, and the rest of our teams are too young and need to time to embed themselves into the psyche of a community. This will take generations. A lot of the worlds greatest rivalries aren’t built from the same city. Real Madrid v Barcelona, Lakers v Celtics, Liverpool v Man Utd, QLD v NSW and so on. Yes it helps if you have a successful neighbor to claim bragging rights over, but it is not the be all and end all. Blowing up the two most iconic and recognizable entities in Australian rugby isn’t the way forward.

      Some notes

      1. Like the premise of your idea, except a massive annoyance of mine in the Champions Cup is the 5 groups, 20 teams. Its just another way of trying to keep everyone happy, plus as they are now quickly finding out, it brings about games where teams can’t qualify after 2/3 matches and they treat it like a mickey mouse competition (aka the French)

      It should be 4 groups 12 teams, this will give teams incentive to fight to the end as every game will matter.

      2. Like this idea, except no Japan. They have their own league and it should be respected. But an AUS/NZ league i truly believe is inevitable and will happen. Continuing to skew our competitions towards the investment from Africa is like buying a Blockbuster Video Store in the early 00’s.

      Best way forward here is to have 2 conference

      Conference 1 (Rebels, Reds, Tahs, Force, Brumbies and a PI team)
      Conference 2 (Top 6 NZ NPC teams, remaining teams can drop down into an 8 team div 1 format, this will provide a promotion relegation system for them, maintain tradition and keep the ranfurly shield alove and well)

      Play own conference twice and once the other conference (16 games)

      Top 2 from each conference play off (eg. Brumbies v Tahs) for an American style championship (eg. Eastern / Western Conference). It’d be nice to call someone Australian Champions

      Winner Aus conf v winner NZ conf

      PI team to play 8 home games out of (4 x Suva, 2 x Apia, 2 x Singapore (collect the cash the Sunwolves are receiving to play there currently).

      Agreed to 2am crap. Its one of the biggest issues in Aus Rugby

      Free to air option for Friday 530 (NZ game), so finishes before AFL + NRL, and Saturday night at 730 (not the most ideal night, but we WILL get crushed going head to head on a Fri or Sun. Perhaps even a 6pm Sunday night game could work, heck maybe even the successful Monday night time slot fox had could be a winner.

      3. For any Champions League style comp to work it needs more than two competitions

      Top 3 from AUS conf
      Top 3 from NZ conf
      Top 3 from Currie Cup
      Top 2 from Japan’s Top League
      Argentine 15

      This would bring another level of professionalism to Japanese Top League and hopefully the big companies incentive to support the league financially

      A Challenge Cup Competition below that with exactly the same format, with the new professional Hong Kong development squad included in place of the Argentine 15.

      Bottom 3 Aus conf
      Bottom 3 NZ conf
      4-6 Currie Cup
      3/4 Japan Top Leage

      This format would provide plenty of room to grow from 12 to 16 teams once any future competitions get started. For instance a Pro American competition (well one that last more than a year), South American, Chinese, you name it. Next moment we have the Champions League equivalent of Rugby.

      Foxtel can have the rights to the Champions Trophy and simulcast of all domestic fixtures, free to air can have the 2 live broadcasts a week.

      As long as we have 6 games a week in time friendly time slots, and ultimately we will be the masters of our own destiny again.

      Each team would get min 10 home matches and more importantly 3 competitions to compete for (aka European soccer, european rugby). Which should keep fans engaged, knowing they can win something.

      It’d probably also spice up the clashes with SA in the Rugby Championship again, with a level of unfamiliarity.

      While i am at it

      Revised Rugby Championship

      5 teams


      play everyone once

      with Bledisloe reduced to 2 games and a 2 game series built between NZ and SA to keep that tradition going.

      Rant over.

      • Pearcewreck

        In answer to your very first point, I’m not suggesting Waratahs and Reds are disbanded, merely that they only play in the shorter 9 week comp. They still exist, and are actually more like the rep teams they used to be pre Super Rugby.

        Sorry, but rest of your comment was TL;DR

        • Rebels3

          All good, unfortunately i became one of those posters that basically hijacked a very nice article.

      • Patrick

        That sounds like a massive improvement.

  • MST

    One thing to consider is that SANZAAR has to deal with 3 key players who have very different needs. Although in saying that 2 of the key players have similar traits.

    In SA the believe the key issue is too many home derbies. SA has a strong domestic set up and the SR teams are almost a secondary concern as most are by product of domestic Unions so the SR teams spun off the union set-ups need the international angle to draw crowds. The drop off correlates with the conference / draw changes. SA’s better time zone alignment with Europe gives them a bit more sway with the TV deal.

    In NZ they also have recently complained about the amount of home derbies. They have a high class product to market which is a draw card and their leverage. Their unions also under pin the SR teams which produces the key market but SR in part detracts from their domestic competition. If SR were to be reduced the Mitre10 NPC may grow in strength and be expanded (time-wise).

    Here we don’t have much in the way of decent domestic competition that has viewers subscribed each year, nor do we have domestic unions as such that underpin the SR teams . The SR teams are essentially standalone and need the local derbies to help the balance sheet. SR is unique in format and cannot compete against other domestic sporting codes. The NRC is a step towards what is needed to compete for a base market but the ARU need to wise up. The BBL has shown how you can stand-up a short season format and competition from the ground up.

    The other two teams are wanting to get a foot in the door so suit other agendas (like RWC 2019) so their need a a little less influential at this point and more about just being involved.

    The above points are the key influential factors that define the way the format/draw is constructed. The construction reflects the need to cater for the needs of each party but is all based on compromise. The format would be far more logical if its key component wasn’t to support the financial needs of each party, rather about a genuine sporting competition.

    Comparing SR to any other Aussie domestic competition is like comparing apples and oranges.Times zones. format, and teams are incomparable and the markets are distinctly different.

  • Muzz

    Nice article Nick. I reckon your suggested solution, whatever it happens to be will be better than what eventuates. Maybe I shouldn’t be so cynical.
    One of the big problems I see isn’t a new one. The team names are virtually all monikers rather than geographical locations. We have the Brumbies play the Lions play the Kings play the Highlanders etc Who the fuck are these teams? Who do they represent? To the casual fan this makes the comp hard to follow and understand, notwithstanding messy draw and conferences.
    Give the teams real names based on their location.

    • McWarren

      You mean like the ACT Brumbies, the Free State Lions, the Southern Kings, the Otago Highlanders etc.

      • Pearcewreck

        Yeah but they should all be Canberra Brumbies, Bloemfontein Lions, Port Elizabeth Kings, Dunedin Highlanders etc.

        • McWarren

          Sydney Tahs? Brisbane Reds? I don’t think it would make one ounce of difference if all news reports, draws and comments used their full geographical name. Do you really think the casual fan will have any more identification with the Bloemfontein Lions as they would with the Free State Lions? I don’t. I think the problem is lack of free to air games. Make the games available to the masses, once they see how good it is they’ll google free state and either be excited and interested or pissed off that it isn’t a place where everything is free.

    • Pearcewreck

      Good point Muzz, also, can some one point out in Aust where a state based sporting competition has created a big fan base.
      Only other comp I think of is Sheffield Shield, and no-one has watched it in years.

      It might sound like a small thing, but I reckon it is really important to have city based names, not state based.

      • Muzz

        Yeah but it’s not just about the cities is it? I am a keen Waratahs fan but I live 700km from Sydney. If they changed their name to Sydney Waratahs they can get stuffed as they no longer really represent me.

  • Brendan Hume

    Without a real domestic competition, rugby in Australia will always struggle to find TV audiences.

    The Reds get seven home games, two against SA pool opponents, two against NZ opponents and three Australian opponents. The regular season runs 21 weeks and there are 15 games during this time, only seven are home games. How is a sport supposed to maintain momentum with this sort of scheduling?

    The travel component of Super Rugby is a joke – the Reds have an incredible draw for TV – 13 of their games kick off between 5:30pm and 8:30pm local time (only 1 game is in the middle of the night and the other game is at 7:00am local time). The Reds will travel over 55,000 km excluding finals.

    The costs of doing business in this competition are extraordinary – it’s no wonder Aussie teams are all broke.

    For this, the ARU gets $55M pa from Fox (up from $25M in the last rights deal). By contrast, the BBL which runs for 5 weeks in a non-ratings period has been estimated to be worth $50-60M for its next deal. It has 35 matches across it’s entire season – all in prime time and on free-to-air.

    The game needs to seriously review it’s strategy – as an marketable entertainment product, this competition sucks. It’s piecemeal and not engaging. Only by taking a punt with a new competition format will Australian Rugby come back from the brink – it may be a bridge too far though. The game will survive as a participation sport, because we have some great volunteers running the grass roots, but as a TV product it’s on its last legs.

    • Pearcewreck

      Spot on Brendan.

      Distances are too huge, it creates a big disconnect between the average fan and Super Rugby.
      BTW, I reckon there are heaps of rugby fans in Aust, just need to give them the right competition to follow, which so far has never happened in Aust.

    • paul


  • jamie

    Split it down the middle. F Off the South African teams and let us play them in a heineken cup style tournament at the end of the year

  • Raytah

    South Africa must leave Aus/NZ and join Europe for everyone’s sake. Time difference between Durban, Paris and London is 2 hours so all games could be primetime. A single Southern Hemisphere rugby competition was romantic at the time but is not sustainable and makes no sense from a sporting or commercial perspective. Aus and NZ audiences demand a different style of rugby than SA & French teams play as well.

    With SA out of the picture, a 1, 2 or 3 conference Pacific centric competition could all make sense. All games would be in attractive timeslots and all teams involved would play exciting fast paced rugby.

    Format #1: 12-15 teams in single regional competition

    Format #2: 12-14 teams across two conferences
    Aus Conference – 5 Aus + 1 Japan (+PI team)
    NZ Conference – 5 Kiwi + 1 Argentina (+NZ team)

    Format #3: 15 teams across 3 conferences
    Aus Conference – 5 Aus
    NZ Conference – 5 NZ
    Pacific Conference – 1 Jap, 1 Arg, 1 PI, 1US, 1 Other

    The depth is not there to go to #3 at this stage so I would think #1 or #2 is the best format. But what is clear is that from a commercial perspective, from a sporting perspective, from a growth of the game perspective and from a player welfare perspective, all formats are better for Aus/NZ without South Africa!

  • Gillie

    Here comes the blasphemy…..
    Ditch the Super Rugby format of teams by state/province
    Move it all back to club rugby and support growth where is actually happens.

    For Australia merge all the state based club rugby comps into a larger, nationwide organisation with tiers like the English Premier League (complete with relegation, etc)

    Then you’ll have something like the French Top 14 comp and build a plan that supports the clubs for seniors and colts and the feeder system – which in Australia is a disorganised bunch of school rugby comps

    Assuming you can maintain the same TV audience across the globe then you should be able to derive the same revenues and instead of spending bucket loads on travel, you spend it on the players, the clubs and the programs.

    Then have a knock out comp at the end of the season with the top 2 teams from each A, NZ, SA and Arg

    I love my state team but the national program in Australia is a joke and I think Super Rugby is part of the problem….the ARU is the majority of the problem

  • McWarren

    29th April & 5th August

  • McWarren

    Okay so this is a humour free thread. Yes no Tahs v Reds.

    In the context of an international provincial rugby tournament how can the Reds vTahs not be considered a derby?

  • McWarren

    Not sure what my comment to PW has to do with it.

    What is the word for it then? I’m at a loss, it’s always been a derby game to me. What with them being neighbours and all. Mind you I’m delighted we only play them once.


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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