Trans-Tasman's latest Super flop
OPINION: The Super Round letdown is the latest gimmick borrowed from the NRL that has failed to take off for Super Rugby’s administrators in search of answers for a revival of the competition.
The idea in itself was a good one, albeit a secondhand one. The execution was terrible, hosting the event in Australia’s least interested rugby market on the same weekend as two bumper AFL games.
Queensland or New South Wales would have at least had genuine rugby supporter bases to draw on. Even staging the event in Perth would have at least built back some goodwill with the rugby supporters there, after the Force debacle five years ago.
Melbourne was a flop, there is no way around it.
More telling was the turnout for NRL’s Anzac Day fixture on Monday between the Storm and Warriors at the exact same stadium that drew in as many fans in one game as the entire three days of the Super Round.
The NRL has seemingly come out of the pandemic stronger than ever while Super Rugby Pacific has become ever more irrelevant.
No wonder some of New Zealand’s best young All Blacks – Ardie Savea, Jordie Barrett, TJ Perenara and now Caleb Clarke – keep expressing an interest in trying their hand at Rugby League. That would have been unheard of when Super Rugby first started more than 25 years ago.
The bright lights of the NRL are intriguing. In many ways, it feels bigger. Australia has a host of new, magnificent stadiums to play in and the fan turnout has been consistent.
Those aforementioned players would play in a competition where the weekly fixtures actually matter, compared to Super Rugby Pacific’s political correctness where every team basically makes the playoffs. What exactly is the point of the regular season in Super Rugby Pacific?
The NRL as an entertainment product has taken the lead over the last decade, but the gulf is widening. The narratives build quickly to add suspense, theatre and pressure, all culminating in interest and fan engagement.
NRL coaches are put on the hot seat after just three losses. The Highlanders almost went winless in New Zealand and just became the first scalp for Aussie teams. If head coach Tony Brown was in the NRL, he would be fired. Or at least questions would be swirling.
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Just ask West Tigers boss Michael Maguire, who, until a week ago, was under immense pressure to deliver a first-up win after five rounds of NRL action. Yet, there is not a peep anywhere about Brown’s job prospects.
Why does this matter? Because it would show that the results matter. There are real consequences at stake in the NRL, and other professional leagues for that matter, which make it interesting. The results matter to club owners and the fans demand that.
For Super Rugby Pacific, results seemingly don’t matter. Not when eight out of 12 teams make the playoffs. Not when you can lose nearly all your games and keep your job. Not when the competition’s talent pool is unequally distributed.
The only coaching change this year has been at the Western Force. Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, their billionaire owner, isn’t prepared to waste time being mediocre. He cares about his team enough to do something.
Rugby’s simpleton administrators in Australasia keep taking gimmicks from Rugby League, such as goal-line dropouts and 50-22s, and putting them into rugby union thinking it will improve the game without really understanding why the NRL is killing them hands down.
However, if you were to point at any of the rules that are hamstringing rugby, it’s not the absence of 50-22s, its the incessant refereeing and constant stoppages slowing the game down.
On balance, fans are enjoying the flow of the game in the NRL where the speed is high and skills are on show for longer periods.
But, really, the NRL is winning because there are real consequences every week. There are narratives that are captivating. They have measures in place to create a competitive landscape where teams rise and fall relatively quickly where off-field recruitment matters. There is a reason to tune in every week throughout the season.
Super Rugby Pacific is already a done deal until the last three games of the season. There is no playoff race and nothing to talk about other than who might make the All Blacks or Wallabies.
For too long, the administrators of Super Rugby have made decisions that show they don’t care about the quality of the competition and have tried to hoodwink fans with changes that damage the integrity of the competition. What was a great competition in Super 12 has become a Mickey Mouse operation over time.
The NRL has benefitted from stability while, at the same time, Super Rugby has undergone a vast number of iterations over the last decade.
Those iterations have seen convoluted conference systems that gave fans perverse and undeserved seedings, expansion teams with little chance of competing, and now the South African exodus which has eroded the history of the competition.
The NRL has always had the top eight – out of 16 teams – and you either make the cut or don’t. If you don’t, there are severe consequences. Every week matters in the race to make it to the pointy end of the season. Every week matters for players and coaches looking to keep their jobs.
The NRL is the be-all and end-all of Rugby League in Australia. There is one goal which every player aspires to every year: winning the Premiership, and – for those who play for Queensland or New South Wales – winning State of Origin.
For rugby players, is the goal for the year winning Super Rugby Pacific? Making the All Blacks? Winning the Bledisloe Cup? Winning the Rugby Championship or the World Cup in the fourth year of a cycle?
There are so many competing priorities and Super Rugby is often lumped at the bottom of that list.
In New Zealand, rugby is losing ground fast as a professional sporting code that younger fans care about. Millennials see right through the nonsense dished up by the lemon that is Super Rugby Pacific.
They simply turn to the NRL, the NBA, the NFL and the Premier League to get their weekly sporting entertainment. Professional leagues with equitable player movement to promote competition and real consequences. Drama, theatre, stories and meaning. The intensity around the competitions is just so more interesting.
Even the players themselves are drawn to follow these sporting leagues, more so than watching the rest of their own code play. How many Kiwi players would bother to tune in live to Aussie derbies on their own accord?
The Crusaders and Blues clash was the pinnacle of Super Rugby Pacific. It was a great spectacle, a meaningful fixture and a brilliant game, reminiscent of the Super Rugby of old.
That kind of mesmerising fixture happens at least once a week in the NRL. It took nine rounds in Super Rugby Pacific.
Super Rugby fans now have to wait for the playoffs for any meaningful games with any consequences. That’s a long time to wait.
By Ben Smith, RugbyUnion