The new-look Super Rugby competition is set for an increasing battle to retain public interest for the duration of another saturated season, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
The final of last year's cracking World Cup took place on 31 October. In terms of southern hemisphere rugby, it's been a long 'off-season', and that in itself will provide cause for considerable excitement as Super Rugby finally kicks off again this weekend.
Nine games take place in the opening round, with all 18 teams in action, while there are also three Six Nations Tests scheduled for this weekend. Later in the season, a new-look Currie Cup 'qualifying' tournament will run concurrently with Super Rugby. It's a lot to take in. Surely too much.
The latest version of Super Rugby has been heralded as the start of a ‘bold new era', and there are certainly aspects to look forward to.
For one, the introduction of the Argentinian Jaguares should bring an entertaining new customer into title contention, while the revamped competition format has also at least done away with the overkill aspect of seeing all South African teams play each other twice.
But, once certain novelties have worn off – such as the readjusted bonus-point system and seeing teams play at new host cities in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Singapore and Suva in Fiji – Super Rugby interest is surely set to wane.
The introduction of the Kings and Sunwolves could provide the odd moment of underdog excitement, but it's hard to see them sustaining an enduring edge of competitiveness for much of the tournament. Over the past couple of seasons, we've already seen the likes of the Cheetahs, Rebels, Force, Blues and Reds battle to make much of an impression.
Then there has been talk of South African teams benefiting from a less demanding travel schedule, but there are new challenges that will have to be faced. For example, during their mid-season travels the Sharks will head east to Auckland, Dunedin and Hamilton before flying back to Durban to play the Hurricanes. The week after they’ll head west to face the Jaguares in Buenos Aires, and then return home.
The Lions, meanwhile, start their season in Tokyo before heading to Hamilton and Dunedin, and then back to Johannesburg. Contrast this with the Stormers’ dream schedule that sees them avoid Kiwi opponents and only have one 'lengthy-ish' tour to meet the Rebels and Force, and it’s clear that the playing fields aren’t all that level.
The fact also remains that I’ve spoken to very few people who have really had the time to get to grips with all the intricacies of the convoluted new format, schedule and play-off qualification process. Don’t underestimate the frustration this will cause for the average fan when the competition heads towards the business end.
All this, though, is simply the nature of the new Super Rugby beast. For many supporters it will be a case of grin and bear it, but in a few months’ time, one can only wonder how many rugby lovers will have grown wearisome once again.
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