Australia look to 'Super-size' rugby
May 25, 2009
The Waratahs made a late rally but it was not enough to secure a Super 14 semi-final berth © Getty Images
For the second time in three years the final weeks of May will be a quiet affair for the Aussie Super Rugby franchises.
Rather than contesting the semi-finals of the premier Southern hemisphere club competition, disappointingly, they will instead be turning snags at end of season barbeques.
At least we had some weeks to get used to the idea as each of the franchises failed to find the consistency to churn out the necessary results. As it was, the Waratahs still had an opportunity on the final day to sneak into the top four, but it was their nemesis from the 2008 final, the Crusaders, who again spoiled the party and sealed fourth with a derby win over the Blues in Auckland.
The Brumbies and Force both threatened more, but ultimately discovered that Super 14 is more than a sprint race. To be successful, you need to know how to win ugly and nice, and our franchises were unable to clinch the tight games when it mattered. Meanwhile, the Reds again failed to capitalise on their raw talent, albeit injuries to key players James Horwill and Berrick Barnes blighted their season.
The good news is that from 2011 an Australian team will always appear in the finals, as Super Rugby goes the way of American sports by introducing regional conferences.
SANZAR announced last week that Super Rugby is to go under the knife for a much needed face lift. This comes after what can only be described as a sorry game of posturing; cat and mouse tactics and brinkmanship between the three partners for much too long.
Under the new format Australia, New Zealand and South Africa will each have a five team conference, with all teams within a particular group playing each other home and away. Teams also play four of the five teams in each of the other two conferences, in effect increasing the number of home games to eight, over the 16-match schedule.
The catalyst for change, from an Australian viewpoint, is the need to generate a larger inventory of matches to sell to broadcasters and give their respective franchises more home matches to raise revenues.
Currently, the S14 franchises only host six to seven home matches a year and with the Wallabies only playing five or six home internationals, the inventory cupboard to sell to broadcasters is considerably under-stocked.
With the location of the fifth Australian team still pending SANZAR agreement (which is far from guaranteed), there will be an increase of 14 local derby matches, from the current six to 20 matches. Overall, 40 Super Rugby matches will be played in Australia as opposed to the current 26.
The figures tell their own tale. The five franchises will not only play more matches but will play home games against each of the other Aussie franchises every season. This is a much better proposition to take to broadcasters and season ticket holders alike.
But quite where the ARU will find another squad of international-standard players is a fair question, considering the existing four teams all missed the finals. Even with better revenue streams from more matches, the ARU won't be able to compete with France or the UK for playing talent and have said they will rely on Pacific Islanders and Rugby League converts to bulk out the squad.
To introduce a mediocre team, absent of household names, to a new market such as Melbourne, Western Sydney or the Gold Coast could prove a very tough sell to punters, with an abundance of sporting teams to follow.
The expanded tournament will run from late February to early August, followed by a re-jigged Tri-Nations schedule. From 2011, the Tri-Nations will start with three matches in South Africa, before moving east. This format will allow the Springboks players to return to Currie Cup action early, which has been the major stumbling block throughout the many years 'expansion' has been on the table.
The new schedule means Bledisloe Cup Tests will likely go head-to-head with the finals series of competing Australian football codes; AFL and Rugby League in September each year. A mouth-watering prospect indeed.
A potential major obstacle on the horizon could be domestic free-to-air television coverage, a constant thorn in the side of the ARU rump. Currently Wallabies domestic matches are shown on Channel Seven, who also own rights to the higher-rating AFL (Aussie Rules) competition.
The ARU have had their fingers burnt time and again as Wallabies matches are screened on delay until close to midnight in some major cities (namely Melbourne and Perth) in order for the AFL to be screened live.
In truth, the current agreement has been a shocker for the sport and has taken Rugby several pegs backwards on the Aussie sports landscape. From a position of being Australia's flagship winter sporting organisation in 2003, Rugby is now fourth in a very competitive football pecking order.
This is why the next ARU broadcast agreement, due in 2011, will be the most definitive for the sport since Australia was awarded the RWC. But negotiations couldn't be at a worse time and John O'Neill and Co have a steep mountain to climb.
Not only are they bargaining from a weakened position, with the 2003 RWC gloss now a distant memory, but broadcasters around the world are reeling from the effects of the global recession.
Having a refurbished product to sell is a good start, but the SANZAR partners will have to work in unity to convince broadcasters to part with a greater slice of the pie in such uncertain times.