8 Feb

Bigger Not Always Better
by Paul Waite
8 Feb 2004

As we ramp up once again for the February-to-May Super-12 marathon, it might be a good time to consider what comes next.

The News Ltd. TV contract with SANZAR runs out in 2005, and all the countries involved will be already working hard to follow the Super-12/Tri-Nations act that came on-stage way back in 1995 amid the turmoil of a Rugby World Cup and a hostile bid to annex World Rugby by the would-be WRC.

Ten years on, and we look back with mixed feelings on the first era of professional rugby, but love it or hate it, it is here to stay in some form or another and we are now at an important time once again in the evolution of the sport.

One would hope that the first decade would offer the powers that be some important lessons that they might heed, instead of relegating them to the status of “secondary issues” as they scramble for the best deal in money terms.

One would also hope they realise that if they fail to put rugby first and go for short-term gain then they are at the very least putting any future profitability in jeopardy, since this necessarily depends on the health of the game.

First and foremost is the lesson that the future marketing and success of the sport can’t continue to leverage revered rugby traditions, and at the same time stomp them into the mud in the name of short-term profits. Even the youngest, brashest marketing executive should be able to perceive that rugby’s points of difference (to use the lingo) with other sports should be preserved. The jerseys, the rules, the genuine camaraderie, the after-match dinners, the long tours, The Lions, the Welsh singing Cwm Rhondda, test-matches on brisk but sunny Saturday afternoons, the list goes on. All of these things are under various degrees of threat from short-sighted non-thinkers in the game today, and rugby must be protected from them or suffer the fate of becoming just another commodity spooned out to the masses via a satellite TV slot.

Another lesson which should have been learned is that there is simply Too Much Rugby in a given season. Not only does it leave the average fan feeling “rugbied out” by the end of October or even earlier, it results in players who either get injured or end up playing like automatons. Whole teams full of players on this huge treadmill end up playing journeyman football of no great worth, and nobody is served except perhaps the idiots ringing the cash-register. A secondary effect is the marginalising of the summer sports here in New Zealand, where cricket (and other sports) are now pressured at both ends of the summer by rugby.

Two additional lessons which should also be taken from the last decade can be summarised as follows: we want long tours back, and we want more variety in our rugby.

Both are linked in fact. Taking the second point first, the Super-12 and Tri-Nations were much too monolithic and repetetive. The 3N had the absolutely hateful effect, for me, of reducing the All Blacks v Springboks test match into just another ho-hum game. There used to be a raising of the hairs on the back of the neck, and butterflies in the stomach for the whole leadup week when the Boks were in town, or when the Blacks toured the republic, but now it’s just another Tri-Nations round. The people who did this to the game ought to be strung up by the balls.

People want variety, TV networks and the accountants want predictability. Ok, so let’s learn from the past decade and accept that what we’ve had is too boring. A compromise could be tried, where a Tri-Nations type of round-robin is done every other year, and major tours in the ones between. The TV networks and Co. will still have predictability, since tours are arranged years in advance, and the fans will have a decent variety, as they had in the amateur era – why should they have to settle for less?

If this were done, the resurgence of the major tour would inject a huge amount of life into rugby at the grass-roots of every country involved. Casting the mind back, some of the tour games I have seen were monumental, and well worthy of a Worldwide TV audience. The shear intrigue of seeing how the Lions go against the might of Auckland, or Canterbury is surely worth both cities weight in gold to the marketeers. Better by far than yet another boring round-robin between teams you’ve seen so many times you start commenting on the players hair-dos to keep from going to sleep in the middle of a game.

But we have been focussing more on the Tri-Nations; what is going to replace the Super-12 come 2005?

As the title of this article suggests, a bigger competition would be the ruin of rugby. It would be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I enter a plea right here, for those who can really listen, to create something better, but not bigger. The two do NOT go hand in hand I’m afraid.

It seems inevitable that Australia will get a fourth Super-XX team in 2005. Ever the pet project of the erstwhile John O’Neill, and ever the pet hate of the NZRFU things have changed somewhat and I would guess that this will go ahead. There is a slight chance that New Zealand might drop a team, but this is unlikely due to financial concerns.

Possibly we might just end up with the Super-13, but don’t under-estimate the power of the Unlucky Number 13; the competition would be re-badged by a team of eager-beaver marketing graduates working from a room with rubber walls, as “The Superthing” or “Sanzar MegaRugby” or “The Great Big Fuckoff Rugby Comp”, or “Gladiators With Oval Balls” or whatever they think might appeal to a TXT-enabled teen with acne from too much face-paint, and more pocket money than brain-cells.

Another option is that as well as a fourth Australian team we get an additional team such as a combined Pacific Island franchise to make a “Super-14″. The testbed for this has already been seen recently as the IRB help to get some fixtures post-Rugby World Cup and bring some much needed money in to the Islands rugby coffers.

With either 13 or 14 teams, the powers that be won’t be forced to radically change the format of the competition to a Pool-play configuration, and they will undoubtedly opt to simply create a bloated version of the Super-12, a great wallowing Mammoth of a competition which numbs the minds of spectators, pummels the bodies of players, and squeezes summer sports more than ever before.

Hopefully sense will prevail and we will see something else. The best option would be to invite another one or two teams in, making 16 and reconfigure the competition for Pool play, and perhaps a two-level playoff (Cup and Plate) at the end. The Australians might raise a fifth team, or maybe the Japanese would be keen. If pool play was used, then Argentina might also be considered, since the travelling logistics can be lessened by the appropriate use of pools.

Whatever the outcome I hope that some sanity is brought to the table as well as balance sheets, and that the fans and players are considered. Above all the age-old saying that “bigger is not necessarily better” should be uppermost in their minds. There’s another saying which is appropriate here as well – “quality not quantity”.

Like all old sayings, they got old because they have value.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

Haka editor-in-chief. Please do not feed.

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