The Super 12 was the southern hemisphere’s golden goose. Season after season, it produced rugby from the heavens. Every televised match was appointment viewing for rugby fans either side of the equator.
Alistair Hargreaves, the former South Africa and Saracens lock, remembers getting up at the crack of dawn as a boy to watch the Canterbury Crusaders.
"Even though I was South African I would watch all their games because they were so good,” Hargreaves said.
“It was the most compelling tournament to watch anywhere. The rest of the rugby world was awe of it.”
Yet the owners of the goose, Sanzaar, could not resist fattening up its prized bird. In 2006, 12 became 14. Five years later it became Super XV before the number was dropped altogether with the admission of Japan’s Sunwolves, Argentina’s Jaguares and a sixth South African franchise, the Southern Kings. The golden eggs are now rotten.
“Super Rugby is an absolute shambles,” Hargreaves said. “It is hard to understand, it does not make sense, there’s a huge gulf in the quality of the sides and it isn’t fair. It is a case of people making the decisions just focusing on the bottom line rather than what is best for the teams, the players and the game. Through no fault of the players, they are now playing in an absolute dud.”
As strident opinion as that it is, you will not find too many dissenting voices. That the competition is in crisis and needs reform is indisputable. Sanzaar are expected to wield the axe on three teams in the next few days: the Western Force in Australia and the Kings and Cheetahs in South Africa.
So how did it come to this? How did a competition that was so far removed from European club rugby that it appeared as if they were playing a different sport became so convoluted and confused?
The short answer is greed. The more franchises, the more matches, the more bums on seats and television income. Or so the thought went. “It was a classic case of trying to fix something that isn’t broken,” Nick Evans, the Harlequins fly-half and former All Black, said.
There are pertinent lessons for authorities in the northern hemisphere to consider with a view to tampering with a successful product.
As more teams have been added so the quality has been significantly diluted. In their desperation to export the game outside its traditional hotbeds, Australian and South African rugby unions stretched their playing pools far too thinly. The New Zealand franchises, while always successful, have now established a hegemony, creating week after week of one-sided results.
In the last round of matches, the traditional powerhouses of the Australian game, the New South Wales Waratahs and Queensland Reds, were thrashed at home by the Crusaders and Hurricanes. The Blue Bulls, South Africa’s most successful side, lost 28-12 at the Waikato Chiefs, their fourth defeat of the season, while the Melbourne Rebels were demolished 51-12 by the Highlanders.
“People want to see competitive games, they don’t want to see 50-60 pointers,” Evans said. “Sometimes you get those results, but if those results happened every week then there’s something wrong with the competition.”
Attendances in South Africa and Australia have plummeted. For their opening game of the season, the Waratahs attracted a crowd of 11,964, less than half of last year’s corresponding fixture. South African stadiums are anywhere between a third and half full while it is estimated the country has lost four million television viewers in four years.
Another equally damaging effect of entering so many teams is that the structure is now an utter mess. “It was brilliant in our day,” said Evans, who represented the Highlanders and Blues from 2004 to 2008. “One year you would play the Bulls at home, the next year you would play them away. Now I can’t get my head around it.”
In short, there are four conferences – two African along with one each from New Zealand and Australia – that feed into an African and Australasian group. Trying to work out who plays who or who qualifies for the play-offs resembles the Mitchell and Webb sketch Numberwang where quiz contestants call out a series of random numbers until one is declared the winner. The Brumbies, who have lost more games than they have won, are second in the Australasian group, ahead of the Chiefs who have a 100 per cent record. Some South African teams will not face any New Zealand franchises until the play-offs.
A fish rots from the head down and both South Africa and Australian rugby as a whole are in deep trouble. In Australia, a recent report – disputed by the ARU – placed rugby union as the country’s 26th most popular sport with the same number of participants – 55,000 – as ballroom dancing. “Australia is a fairly unique country in that there are so many different codes that fight for the same fanbase, the same kids, same sponsors, same television contracts,” James Horwill, the Harlequins lock and former Australia captain, said. In a dog-eat-dog fight, union is being torn to pieces by the twin pitbulls of Aussie Rules and League.
The problems in South African rugby have been previously documented on this website, but the situation continues to deteriorate. For Hargreaves, the real sadness is in how many wounds have been self-inflicted. “The Currie Cup used to be such a good competition but no one watches it any more because people are watching the teams play each other two or three times in Super Rugby.”
New Zealand has thus far been spared many of these issues but as Australian journalist Paul Cully writes: “New Zealand is the beautifully appointed, double-glazed, fibre-connected room in a house that is badly affected by subsidence.”
So what next? The cull will trim some fat, but Hargreaves argues the only way to restore the competition’s past glories is by reverting to 12 teams. “Super 12 was epic,” Hargreaves said. “It was an absolute spectacle. It was fair. The talent is still there and I have no doubt it can be as successful if you go back to making it Super 12 again.”