‘We will consider further expansion’

JON CARDINELLI chats to Sanzaar CEO Andy Marinos about the challenges of the Super Rugby format and the likelihood of future expansion.

Jon Cardinelli: The new Super Rugby format was widely criticised from the outset. The 2016 tournament has come and gone, and the relatively low crowd attendance and viewership figures suggest that fans are losing interest in the competition. Do those figures show the format isn’t working?
Andy Marinos: The crowd numbers are flat in Australia, down in South Africa and up in New Zealand, when compared to 2015 at the end of the regular season. Overall, we’ve had some really positive numbers in our new markets. Crowds in Tokyo averaged around 20,000, Singapore pushed between 10,000 and 12,000, and Buenos Aires averaged 17,000. The biggest decline in viewership, though, has been in South Africa, but then I think you need to look at the reasons for that. Most of the South African teams did not perform as well in 2016 as expected, and performance and crowd attendance go hand-in-hand.

JC: The Super Rugby final in Wellington was a sellout, and the semi-final between the Lions and Highlanders was well attended. Other than that, the playoffs witnessed some disappointing crowds. Fewer than 9,000 people went to watch the Brumbies play the Highlanders in Canberra, while a mere 29,000 attended the Stormers vs Chiefs quarter-final at Newlands. How concerning is it for Sanzaar that these big games aren’t pulling big crowds?
AM: We did see smaller crowd numbers in the 2016 quarter-finals than in previous years, and it was a bit of a surprise to see that the semi-final in Wellington did not draw a big crowd, even though the Hurricanes-Chiefs battle is always a mouthwatering prospect. On the plus side, 50,000 people watched the semi-final at Ellis Park, and it was great to see the final between the Hurricanes and Lions in Wellington sell out. In terms of TV viewers, we were around the 50-million mark for the entire tournament, which isn’t bad.

JC: Many players and coaches have spoken out against the unfairness of the format. Do you take those comments to heart?
AM: We knew things were going to be different when we migrated to a conference model, and then this new format in 2016. I suppose it comes down to seeing the glass half-empty or half-full, as everybody knew that it was no longer a tournament where every team played every other team. One can’t deny that the product on the field this year for the large part has seen some really fantastic games and a very positive brand of running rugby on display. That said, we do take the comments of all stakeholders on board.

JC: Stormers captain Schalk Burger said that Sanzaar should bin the conference system and revert to a round-robin format to ensure fairness. Is that an option, or will Sanzaar continue to back a conference system for the foreseeable future?
AM: People attack the format, but we had to back a conference system as it allowed us to include all 18 teams. We will be reviewing the 2016 season over the next few months, and as part of our strategic plan looking at where this competition is going over the next 10 years. We want to maximise what we have and ensure that this is the premier club competition in world rugby. At the same time, we are mindful of the purpose the tournament serves to the respective national unions that make up Sanzaar. We want the quality of rugby on display in the Super Rugby tournament to be carried through to the national sides. We want the Rugby Championship to be strong, and for the likes of New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and South Africa to continue to be a dominant force in world rugby.

JC: Does Sanzaar view this season’s Super Rugby as a success?
AM: There have been a lot of positives. The debutants, the Jaguares and Sunwolves, have brought something new and exciting to this tournament. The ball-in-play time is up from last year, as are the number of linebreaks and tries scored, while the number of scrum resets is down. There’s been some great rugby and it’s fair to say that the product in most markets has improved.

JC: Do you concede that the 2016 season has had its challenges, and that there are problems that need to be addressed?
AM: Yes, the competition has had challenges and as with any new structure there will be problems/issues that need to be addressed. However, I think that the situation has been exacerbated by the New Zealand teams absolutely dominating the tournament. Overall, the Australian and South African teams, with the exception of the Lions, did not fare as well as they would have hoped this year, and I think that this, as well as the New Zealand teams’ dominance, contributed to a lopsided competition. That said, the eight teams that qualified for the quarter-finals were all worthy of their places. The best four teams in the tournament advanced to the semi-finals, and the two best sides without question progressed to the final. Again, you need to look at the quality of rugby on display in the finals series [playoffs]. There was some great attacking rugby and several high-scoring matches. Super Rugby remains a great product and we saw some improvements in the finals series this season.

JC: You say that the best four teams qualified for the semi-finals, and that the best two teams qualified for the final. However, those playoff contests were compromised by travel demands. The Highlanders were forced to travel from Australasia to Johannesburg for a semi-final. The Lions had to travel all the way from Johannesburg to Wellington for the final. Why can’t there be a week’s break between playoff matches to ensure the travelling team isn’t at such a significant disadvantage?
AM: The travel impact on the finals series has been there for the past 20 years and is no different to what many of the teams have had to put up with in this period.We will take a good look at the playoff structure with a view to the future. It has been spoken about already, seeing if we can secure an additional week to separate the semi-finals and final by two weeks to give teams time to travel and mitigate the travel factor. It’s been an issue for the past 20 years. Ultimately, we want to ensure that we get the best product.

JC: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the tournament?
AM: I’ve been involved in the competition for two decades. From the beginning, the biggest challenge was geographical. That challenge remains today, with teams travelling vast distances to compete in South Africa or Australasia for weeks at a time. The addition of a sixth team from South Africa and teams from Argentina and Japan has driven the expansion and a conference structure that does not have all teams playing each other in the regular season, which has compounded the travel factor further. This is the reality of the tournament.

JC: Do you believe the addition of three teams in 2016, and especially those based in Argentina and Japan, has improved the tournament?
AM: Argentina joined the Rugby Championship in 2012. It took them some time to find their feet in that tournament, but they have managed to record wins against Australia and South Africa in recent years, and have come close against New Zealand. They did well at the 2015 World Cup, hence it was a natural progression for them to join Super Rugby. The Jaguares didn’t enjoy the best introduction to Super Rugby in 2016, but they did travel extensively over the course of the season. They will benefit from this experience, though. They now have a good idea of what’s required in this tournament, and how to prepare accordingly in the coming years.

JC: How about the Sunwolves?
AM: Japan’s win against the Springboks at the 2015 World Cup provided Japanese rugby with a massive boost in the lead-up to the Sunwolves’ Super Rugby debut in 2016. The Sunwolves were disrupted in the buildup to their season, but still managed to play an unorthodox yet wholly entertaining brand of rugby over the course of the tournament. They will only get better in the years to come and Japan has got massive potential for growth as a rugby nation. The fact that the 2019 World Cup is being staged in Japan will ensure the sport continues to grow there.

JC: Let’s talk about the Kings. While they recorded one more win than the Sunwolves this season, they suffered a number of heavy and embarrassing defeats. Even in New Zealand, many have lamented the Kings’ lack of quality and how their inclusion has brought the overall standard of the tournament down. Isn’t that a concern for a tournament that is aiming to maintain a high standard of rugby?
AM: There was a lot of noise made about the Kings before the start of the 2016 season. Many felt they wouldn’t be ready, and one only needed to look down their team list to realise they were in for a tough time. Of course, one also needed to realise the challenges they had faced in the buildup to the season, and how they had battled to attract a number of players to their franchise. We’re hoping that they will stabilise in the future. They are back in the tournament, and will benefit by having more time to prepare for the 2017 season and beyond, under the auspices of SA Rugby.

JC: There are rumours of further Super Rugby expansion in 2020. How close is the tournament to becoming a truly global competition that includes teams from North America and Europe?
AM: We have our core markets that we’d like to keep and ensure that they are strong and viable. Once this is achieved we will be in a better position to assess any expansion plans. In terms of expansion, the scope is global and we will consider all the options in North and South America, Europe and Asia. We will take what our stakeholders say on board before we make any big decisions, and that includes the input and voice of the fans.

‘There are some things I won’t miss, like the competition structure, especially this year and even last year. It’s not fair on those teams that perform consistently all competition. I know Sanzaar came out pretty strongly and said “this is the format”, but I don’t think anyone with their feet on the ground would agree with it. I won’t miss that, or the travel factor. Somewhere along the line it needs a working party. It’s been 21 years and we definitely need some influence.’ – OUTGOING CRUSADERS COACH TODD BLACKADDER

‘We finished with the fourth-best record overall, but somehow we ended sixth in the final standings [and had to travel from New Zealand to Cape Town for a quarter-final]. Unfortunately, the format is not going to change. We had some questions about it [when it received the green light in 2014], how it was going to work and so on. It is what it is and we had to make the best of it in 2016. In 2018 they will have another look at the format, and perhaps alter it a bit.’ – CHIEFS COACH DAVE RENNIE

‘Not playing any of the New Zealand teams in the buildup to this game was a big factor [in the Stormers’ performance and defeat to the Chiefs in their quarter-final]. The New Zealand sides play at a different intensity, something we hadn’t experienced in previous matches. We would have liked to have tested ourselves against these teams earlier in the season.’ – STORMERS COACH ROBBIE FLECK

‘Perhaps they need to get rid of the conference system and get back to the old round-robin format [which was in place from 1996 to 2010]. The conference format has been a bit complex to follow, even for us players. To be honest, you want to be testing yourself against every team. You also want those life experiences of travelling to play against an All Blacks-laden Crusaders side on a cold, wet night in Christchurch. You want those challenges, as they ensure you keep growing and that you remain up to speed with where other teams are.’ – STORMERS CAPTAIN SCHALK BURGER

This article first appeared in the September edition of SA Rugby magazine.

Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

Post by

Jon Cardinelli