Amidst the ongoing debate and uncertainty over the future of Super Rugby, the last few weeks have seen a clear, united and passionate endorsement from players, coaches and fans that Australian Rugby needs to retain five professional teams.
For all the recent public commentary, perhaps Brendan Cannon has said it best today in cutting to the core of the issue:
“So instead of talk about our franchises and whether we should keep five or cut one, how about we keep five and BECOME one?”
Five Key Reasons for Five Teams
Whilst justifications for wielding the axe on Australia’s representation in Super Rugby sprout up here and there, such a reduction doesn’t solve any of the game’s strategic challenges. Here’s why:
1. As other codes look and act to expand their domestic market share, we do not believe that losing 20% of ours is going to get more boys and girls in schools inspired to play the game. Professional Rugby produces 90% of the game’s revenues and in return, it needs to not only fund itself but also allow for appropriate investment to fund community rugby. Is there room for improvement in how the professional game is run? Absolutely, but reducing the number of professional entities generating revenue will reduce the total pool of funds available to be reinvested.
2. Likewise, narrowing the elite talent pathway isn’t going to help us beat the All Blacks, England or give aspiring players and coaches the opportunities they need to develop. Was it not for a fifth team, would we know a player like Reece Hodge or Adam Coleman?
3. Critics of expansion have pointed to the lack of success of new franchises and used it as evidence of failure. In a far more even playing field, expansion AFL clubs Fremantle and the Brisbane Lions both took almost a decade to make their first finals series, and even longer to win a flag (Freo is still waiting). The distortion of the ARU top-up model doesn’t give each of our teams an equal chance to succeed when there is a severely disproportionate spend on players.
4. In recent years, the ARU has pursued financial security by cutting grants to Premier Rugby and has reduced the proportion of total broadcast revenue that Super Rugby teams now receive. And for all that, the game is no more financially secure. As Australian Rugby ponders another concession, prospective savings will no doubt be part of the rationale, but they’ll be limited by the ARU honouring player contracts signed for 2018 and beyond.
5. The re-alignment and re-engagement of all rugby stakeholders to embrace their professional representative team is one of the principal challenges the game faces. Ironically, the threat of being cast aside has brought more tribalism out of Australian fans than we have seen since the 2015 RWC Final. It re-affirms that there’s very limited upside in cutting a team and disenfranchising an entire regional rugby community of fans volunteers, coaches, players and corporate supporters.
Is change needed to the competition?
Whilst for the reasons above, players staunchly believe in maintaining five Australian teams, there is consensus within the game that the current 18-team competition model has more than its fair share of challenges. It lacks integrity in its fixtures, is a fan’s nightmare to follow and is ultimately weakening the position of rugby in each nation. It's a model that the ARU themselves believe is a "crap competition".
But to design any new competition first and then have to slash away at Australian Rugby second, really would be putting the cart in front of the horse.
The unanimous nature of the SANZAAR vote means that getting the most ideal long-term economic and competitive model for Australian Rugby – a trans-Tasman or Australasian competition – is pretty unlikely this time round. But we need to be looking towards that for the future and shedding a team now doesn’t give us any strategic advantage ahead of that. So what are the options?
Reorganising the current 18 team competition
Retaining all 18 teams and shifting to a three conferences of six model.
Reverting back to the three conference model brings much needed integrity back to the competition by ensuring there is genuine cross-over between all conferences and countries. It would increase the quantity of local derbies (33% more) for commercial purposes, and with only three conference winners to progress to a top-8 finals series, there are five places to be awarded on merit to the next five best teams overall.
Teams would play both home and away within their conference (10 games) and then half of each of the other two conferences (6 games) to provide 16 games in total; importantly guaranteeing eight home and eight away games per annum for all teams.
The placement of the Jaguares into the New Zealand conference is the most inelegant part of this model. However, with New Zealand being one of only very few countries that fly direct into Buenos Aires, it is not as odd as it may seem. That flight is approximately 12 hours, just less than the flight from Perth to Tokyo.
Trimming back to 15, but not at our expense
The same rationale should apply to a 15-team model, three conferences, full home and away inside your conference (8 games), and cross over games with four of the five teams in other conferences (8 games) to give 16 games in total.
This is the identical model that operated from 2011 to 2015 although, 18 into 15 brings about the requirement for nations to concede teams. For the sake of integrity and balance, each conference must be of five teams and be geographically feasible.
If this is SANZAAR’s preferred position then serious questions will need to be asked about how the competition was allowed to be expanded, and why established teams are now at risk, but expansion teams generally are considered safe.
Over the last few months, the preferences of the South African Rugby Union have been the most unknown, although there is speculation of a preparedness to reduce from six to four teams. No 15-team model is possible without this occurring.
From that basis, the Jaguares become the fifth team in that conference, with the five New Zealand teams a conference to themselves, and the same with Australia.
Conference 3 (to be reduced to 5)
Under this proposal, the Sunwolves would withdraw from the competition for the time being.
Strategically, this would be an unfortunate outcome, but is by no means the end of Super Rugby in Japan forever. The Sunwolves program is currently run under the auspices of the JRFU, who also have a Rugby World Cup to prepare for in 2019. Their success on and off the field is a long-term initiative and given the pressing issues facing SANZAAR, there is not the luxury for the four member nations to subsidise their ongoing participation at their (read: our) expense.
A more Australian-centric view is that, simply put, agreeing to retain the Sunwolves would be putting the interests of Japan ahead of our own. Especially when their continued participation will add millions in cost to the operation of the competition.
ARU has the power
We need five teams. And there are models to sustain five teams. This isn’t about what’s best for SANZAAR, it’s about what’s best for Australian Rugby.
When the ARU and SANZAAR agreed to expand the competition to 18 teams in 2014, it came with an extra $30m annually from new broadcast deals; a terrific windfall for all stakeholders. The risk – well known at the time - was that the teams needed to play in a more complex competition, where they get less home games and less local content. That risk has become a reality and the current SANZAAR process is the result.
But as in 2014, any change from upcoming meetings requires the ARU’s agreement.