Expansion into mega mediocrity

Increasingly the decision to expand Vodacom Super Rugby in 2016 is looking like a decision to grow an enormous mediocre monster, writes RYAN VREDE.

I know but a handful of people who watch an entire round of Super Rugby, and most of those are journalists whose job demands they do so. Given the choice, the majority would spend the time required to cover fixtures like the Force vs Rebels, or this weekend's Lions vs Blues classic, doing an array of more stimulating things.  

They're not alone. The broader southern hemisphere rugby fraternity share the same view, despite what the TV bosses try to spin. The majority of us watch the team we're loyal to and matches between elite sides, and turn off when we're served donkey meat dressed up as rump steak.

And there's plenty of donkey meat to feed the masses. This past weekend was another example of the gulf in class and quality between the best Super Rugby has to offer and those who make up the numbers. The broadcasters and Sanzar administrators disagree, a position reflected in their strong indication that the tournament will almost certainly expand to 17 teams (a sixth South African side and one from Argentina), with New Zealand pushing hard for an 18th representative from Japan. 

Eighteen teams, with only just over half of those worth watching. The southern hemisphere rugby fraternity is being cheated by the suits whose end goal is personal and organisational enrichment at the expense of their primary assets – the players and the supporters.

Ever more elite players are being struck down with serious injury because of the draconian schedule. How many more will we be robbed the privilege of watching because they are required to play a ludicrous number of matches in the season? I take little comfort in a promise made to me by Sanzar CEO Greg Peters in a telephonic discussion midway through last year, when he said that the number of matches per team would remain unchanged even if further expansion took place. To achieve that would take some serious panel-beating of the format. I think Peters' intention is noble, but its implementation is near impossible.

Japanese clubs stand to benefit most. The restriction on the number of foreign imports they are able to have in their match-day squads means they primarily target elite players, with the vast majority of those coming from the southern hemisphere. The prospect is clearly very appealing – top players can double their current income for playing fewer matches at a significantly lower intensity. From a South African perspective, there are no five-week Australasian tours, no brutal local derbies and nowhere near the same level of pressure exerted by demanding supporters. As hosts of the 2019 World Cup, Japan will ramp up their recruitment efforts in the coming years in a bid to grow interest in the game. Sanzar, you've been warned.     

Ultimately Super Rugby will (and already has to a large extent) seriously undermine the quality of Tests for the southern hemisphere giants. I can't remember when last I've watched a Rugby Championship Test where both sides are able to name their best 23, or field players who aren't being gripped by extreme fatigue. What you've seen in recent history when you've watched a Springbok vs All Blacks Tests is but a shadow of what it had the potential to be. Given that even under the current circumstances they rarely fail to thrill, imagine what you could be watching.

I've already made my position on Super Rugby clear – I'd prefer to see a Super 10 or 12 with a second-tier competition accommodating the rest. This will never happen. If anything, the tournament will continue to grow into a mega advertisement for rugby mediocrity. 

Photo: Michael Sheehan/Gallo Images

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Ryan Vrede