Super Rugby not so super

Indications of declining public interest in Super Rugby can really come as no surprise, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

As we head into the final weekend of conference action, the complicated nature of the competition structure is set to come into sharp focus. The playoff format will see the top-ranked side face seed eight, seed two will host seed seven, seed three will face seed six and seed four will play seed five.

There’s still plenty that can change on the final weekend of action (for example the fourth-placed Hurricanes could still end up finishing first in the New Zealand conference), and the calculators will need to come out in terms of devising who finishes where.

The Brumbies should also look at the log standings and feel embarrassed. As the Aussie conference leaders, they’re automatically placed in a top-two spot in the Australasian group.

It sees them placed ahead of the Crusaders (who have 11 more log points than the Brumbies), and the Highlanders and Hurricanes (both of whom have nine more log points). When you look at the log in that context, it boggles the mind.

The unfairly weighted structure of the Super Rugby format has also served to completely skew the perception of where teams stand, as was widely predicted in the pre-season.

During their mid-season travels, the Sharks headed east to face top Kiwi teams in Auckland, Dunedin and Hamilton before flying back to Durban to play the Hurricanes. The week after that they headed west to face the Jaguares in Buenos Aires, and then finally returned home.

Although they did relatively well to negotiate this gruelling period by picking up six points in New Zealand before beating the Hurricanes, Jaguares and Kings, there’s no doubt it was an incredibly taxing period for the Durbanites.

In complete contrast, albeit through no fault of their own, the Stormers were able to avoid facing any of the leading Kiwi opponents this season, while they comfortably overcame the rabble Rebels and Force in their one and only 'lengthy-ish' tour.

Back in February, I wrote that I feared the new-look Super Rugby competition was set for an increasing battle to retain public interest for the duration of another saturated season.

Indeed, by the sounds of it, the poor quality of a large number of matches and the convoluted nature of the playoff qualification has added to the frustration and waning interest of the average fan.

According to findings published by Rapport, SuperSport has had 3.8-million fewer viewers for the tournament in 2016 than in 2012, while Newlands has been the only local venue to be more than half full on average this season.

And while the crowd attendances in Tokyo have been outstanding, Super Rugby newcomers the Sunwolves have won just the solitary game in a difficult debut season. The Jaguares have also flattered to deceive, while the Kings have been completely up against it. The poor crowd attendances compared to their debut season in 2013 speak volumes about the state of rugby in Port Elizabeth.

Sanzaar has reportedly asked consulting firm Accenture to do a strategic review of the two-group, four-conference Super Rugby format and provide a road map for the next 10 years, but one wonders what that will really reveal. This format is set to stay for at least another year before further potential expansion.

Yet after just one season of Super Rugby in its current guise, the frustration is setting in. New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew recently stated that the playoff format was ‘frankly not fair’, while Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder has said that hopefully ‘common sense will prevail and we'll get a competition that rewards performance unlike this current model’.

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika also raised a point that certainly seems to resonate with the vast majority: ‘Until Super Rugby has a format where everyone plays everyone, you're always going to have these questions.’

And indeed, as stakeholders of the game, we need to keep asking these questions. We need to demand changes that see a strength-versus-strength system reinstated, because as it stands, Super Rugby is a product that is fast losing its mass appeal. And that should be a cause for considerable concern.

Photo: Tertius Pickard/Gallo Images

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Craig Lewis