Restoring integrity will be the major focus when powerbrokers gather to decide Super Rugby’s future in March.
Sanzaar boss Andy Marinos, in an interview with the Herald, has all but confirmed change is once again coming to the future format and structure as poor crowd attendances, disillusioned fans and worrying viewership figures appear to finally hit home.
Returning to a round robin format is heavily favoured but discussions are on-going – specifically around whether the Sunwolves should be retained – and the final blueprint remains sketchy.
As the deadline fast looms, what we do know is Sanzaar’s board is due to next meet in March and the four member unions are expected to then seek a unanimous agreement to change the competition structure.
Marinos projected confidence that New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina will map out an overdue path forward from 2021 at that meeting.
“I’d like us to be in that position,” Marinos said. “We don’t have the luxury of time on our side and if there are going to be any changes to the competition structure we need to know what that is going to look like because we’ve got to start some face-to-face engagement with our broadcasters during the course of 2019.”
After flip flopping on the number of teams, adding and subtracting but maintaining a confusing conference style format in recent years, further expansion is off the table for now.
This alone represents a major backtrack for an organisation once hell-bent on world domination.
Unfortunately, though, no expansion means no Pacific Island team.
The financially constrained Fiji-led bid could not commit to demands for $NZD18 million ($US12m) per-season, and so the door remains closed.
“We’ve done feasibility studies around putting teams in North America and the Pacific Islands and we’ve seen the metrics aren’t really stacking up for us at this point in time but that doesn’t mean we won’t look at taking our product into those markets in the form of regular season games or preseason friendlies.”
On the Pacific Islands, Marinos makes it clear their continued exclusion comes down to one factor.
“The commercial model to underpin it is critically important and then you look at that on the other side from a high performance perspective where are you going to balance another team and are you going to get the Tongans, Samoans and Fijians all part of that ecosystem.
“Economically it just didn’t make sense and Sanzaar at this point in time… the health of the national unions is not such that we can continue to strategically invest into new markets. Those other markets have to be able to pay for themselves and underpin the performance of their participating team.”
Belated lessons have been learnt from the way Sanzaar ploughed headfirst into Japan without first ensuring proper links between the Sunwolves and the Japanese Rugby Union were established. Four years on, the landscape is much the same and the Sunwolves’ future is therefore under threat after finishing bottom with three wins from 16 games last season.
“In retrospect we hadn’t really gone too deeply when we moved into the Asian market. There wasn’t the cohesion or coherent rugby structure underpinning what we were trying to achieve for Super Rugby.
“It’s very much a work in progress. I’m actively involved in the Sunwolves and their structure. They’ve certainly improved from ’16 to ’17 and ’18 in terms of their performance.
“We’ve got to look at it from a long-term perspective in how do we get there national team competing on a more frequent basis in a more competitive manner.
“Is having one team in Super Rugby the best vehicle or is it working with the Japan Rugby Union in adding to the Super Rugby team a proper professional domestic competition structure?
“This is all part of an on-going conversation we are having.”
Competing tension from Japan’s long established and successful Top League, which increasingly attracts global stars, created clear conflict from the get go but Sanzaar pushed ahead anyway.
“It’s also about being able to get the mix right so you get enough Japanese players playing week in, week out rather than putting a lot of foreigners in there and getting the results you need in a Super Rugby context but it is not really growing the national game.
“The coaches there will attest to that. As much as it has been fantastic and a lot of those Japanese players have stepped up internationally we need to see them pushing into the top half of the World Rugby rankings. They certainly have the player base to get there if they get a more professional domestic competition underpinning their high performance programme.”
Ditching Super Rugby’s much-maligned conference format looks near certain.
With four often conflicting backyards, Sanzaar is always a complex beast but the respective union bosses seem to believe the best way to eliminate so many scheduling injustices is to revert to a modified round robin.
That would, however, lessen the number of Kiwi derbies.
“Everyone who speaks to me they just need something that is simple and easy to understand. When we get to the business end of the season you want to know everybody has played everyone and they’ve all had a similar path to get to the finals so that the finals series has integrity.
“Those have been big pieces for us to look at; how do we increase the competitiveness and how do we get the integrity back. Certainly a round robin format would deliver that.”
On that basis 15 teams must become 14 and the Sunwolves then get the chop?
Not necessarily, says Marinos. The imminent shift in the test window from June to July will offer a larger window but, even then, to accommodate desired change the competition would have to start earlier.
“That’s part of the process the nationals unions and ourselves are going through. There are a number of anomalies on the table and that’s why it’s not a straightforward decision.”
As for on-going concerns around South Africa’s four remaining teams shifting north, Marinos swiftly swats aside discontent from his homeland.
“Yes they’ve gone into the Pro14 but quite honestly they weren’t given much option with having to take two teams out of the structure. Their commitment to Super Rugby until such time as they tell us otherwise is steadfast.
“I personally am not convinced that all South African teams playing in the Pro14 is going to give the players the same week in, week out competiveness as they’ve been used to. The challenges Super Rugby gives you, it prepares the players so much better for international competition because test rugby is not always about playing home games.”