Super Rugby needs a re-vamp
March 30, 2009
Chris Latham in action for the Australian Barbarians in their clash with Fiji in Sydney in 1999 © Getty Images
This morning, I found myself looking at the Super 14 standings and was surprised to see we're already half way through another season. The teams must also be surprised as none have really hit full stride and laid out a credible claim for the title.
The Aussie teams are where we expected. The Waratahs are still clinging to a top two spot, but again find themselves battling both on-field opposition and a vociferous media pack intent on taking pot shots at every opportunity. With Phil Waugh's future far from uncertain, this season may be the Waratahs last opportunity in some time to lift the trophy.
The Brumbies, Force and Reds are all destined for yet another mid-table finish, after a number of false starts so far. The inability of these teams to seriously threaten the top four does little to convince me Australia should have a fifth franchise.
Only the Reds have attempted to play an expansive game on a regular basis and coach Phil Mooney should be rightly congratulated on allowing his young guns, Berrick Barnes, Quade Cooper and Ben Lucas/Will Genia, freedom of expression. The 'license to thrill' will surely be noticed by national coach Robbie Deans and may just earn each of them places in the Wallabies camp come June, at the expense of Kurtley Beale.
However, the tournament as a whole has lost its sparkle, and the failure of the SANZAR nations to agree on practically anything is causing Super 14 to fall even further from the successful competitions in the North.
Super 14 desperately needs a re-vamp to keep it relevant in the competitive Australian sporting landscape. The ELVs are quickly losing their momentum as the referees seem unable to agree on consistent interpretations and the promised extended finals series keeps being postponed. Despite butting heads with some of their SANZAR partners, news isn't all bad for the ARU, who trumpeted news last week of their A$9 million turnaround, to record a surplus of over A$700,000 for the year.
Reading between the lines, the vast majority of this figure can be attributed to savings from the axing of the Australian Rugby Championship and several senior staff departures, as well as pushing through with the previous administration's plans to fill the Bledisloe Cup with Hong Kong dollars. The ARU also claimed gate receipts are on the rise and they will be hoping Deans' attractive brand of football continues to lure even more Wallabies fans back through the turnstiles after a few bland years.
However, the ship is far from a safe harbour and new revenue streams are required to underpin rugby's position Down Under. Reports suggest one option under the ARU's consideration is the resurrection of an Australian Barbarians side to play against the Wallabies in October. The rational behind the idea is to give fringe Test players and up and coming talents a good crack at their Wallabies counterparts and even earn a call up for the Spring Tour.
With the obvious benefit of extra game time, fitness and a testing ground for new combinations, the matches could also be a potential money-spinner for a lean-looking 2009 balance sheet.
It's no secret the ARU will find it difficult to sell Test match tickets to a cynical and recession-hit Australian public this season. Two matches against Italy will hardly raise eyebrows and there's no certainty the touring French will send their A-team either, despite the very public assertions from both camps (which we also heard in 2008. Add to that a Barbarians match fast looking like an ex-leagie pow-wow and June seems all a bit underwhelming for Rugby punters.
With only one Bledisloe Test in Australia this year, you wouldn't blame the ARU for taking the initiative and setting up an Aussie Barbarians v Wallabies series for later in the year. I would like to see the ARU take these matches to non-traditional rugby areas - Adelaide, Townsville, Newcastle or Dubbo for example - and help offset the damage from the ARU's decision to withdraw Australia A from this year's Pacific Nations Cup (PNC).
Citing financial hardship the ARU pulled the plug on Australia A and left a sizeable hole, not only in the development of fringe and upcoming Test players, but also limited the opportunity for Rugby to spread its wings beyond the 'blazer brigade' of the major rugby cities. It was also a shame for our Pacific neighbours who need Australia's assistance in helping to continue their development through providing quality opposition in the PNC.
Given the number of Wallabies - Lote Tuqiri, Wycliff Palu, Digby Ioane and many more - which hail from that part of the world, Australian Rugby owes a debt to their Pacific neighbours and must do more to improve rugby in the region. And the October window could just be the opportunity to mend bridges and invite a Pacific Islands team to Australia for a mini-tournament, also involving the Wallabies and Australia A.