Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Tough break for Super players and fans

JP Pietersen of the Sharks is tackled by TJ Perenara (L) and Cory Jane of the Hurricanes. Photo / Getty Images
JP Pietersen of the Sharks is tackled by TJ Perenara (L) and Cory Jane of the Hurricanes. Photo / Getty Images

For the coaches, there is growing angst. For the players, it will be frustration. And for the fans, it will be bewilderment.

These are the likely range of emotions that will kick in as a consequence of Super Rugby being forced into a three-week hibernation in June to make way for international rugby.

The enforced break is being sold by Sanzar officials as an inevitable consequence of the expanded competition; a small price to pay in return for a late February start to the tournament and the conference format.

Everyone is being jollied along into accepting things, with Sanzar pointing out that competition interludes are the accepted norm throughout Europe.

But, however hard the positives are pushed, there is little enthusiasm for the looming state of affairs. The English, French and Celtic leagues are conditioned to stop-start competitions.

From the first days of professionalism they have jumped from league games to Heineken Cup games to domestic cup games.

Fans take it all in because they have known no other way and also because they have such a diversity of opponents to keep the whole business fresh and entertaining.

A big English club like Northampton might play a French team in the Heineken Cup one week, play a cross border fixture in the Anglo-Welsh Cup the next and then follow that with an intense local derby in the Premiership. That's how it is over there and it works.

It has never been that way here, though.

The Southern Hemisphere has been compartmentalised - competitions are played out in one blast before embarking on the next. Never before has there been a break in Super Rugby and the three-week interlude has the potential to derail momentum.

The biggest concern is not so much the break itself but the timing: round 15 will be played on June 2, then there will be three weeks off, before the final three games of round-robin action.

It's a terrible time to stop. The drama and intrigue will be intense, with the play-off picture starting to become clearer before the whole thing sits in cold storage.

There are some teams who will have it even tougher - the Cheetahs, Western Force and Reds all have a bye on June 2, giving them four weeks off, while the Blues, Waratahs and Sharks have a bye on the first weekend back. Maybe the Hurricanes have got the worst draw of all - a bye one week after resumption.

It's little wonder that New Zealand's five coaches are uncertain how to handle the time off.

There is a reluctance to not play any rugby for three weeks and then come back cold for critical games.

But typically it's in so-called friendly encounters where the likelihood of injury is greater.

Every squad will be minus their All Blacks for the entire period, with several players also missing for one weekend to take part in the North versus South game in Dunedin which is being played to raise funds to bail out the Otago Rugby Union.

It's a bit of a mess, without even having to worry about what sort of state key All Blacks will be in after a three-test series against Ireland. Coaches and players have no choice this season but to try to work with the schedule.

Whether Sanzar will persevere with the current set-up beyond 2012 depends largely on the effect the break has on viewer and spectator interest.

"We will be monitoring the situation from a number of angles," says New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew.

"We will see what it does to fan interest - whether we lose momentum or whether it freshens things up. We will see what it does to the performance of the franchises and of course we don't know what the effect will be on the All Blacks."

Historically the last few weeks of the competition enjoy a spike in interest.

If there is no surge in viewing numbers after the international window this year, Sanzar will have a problem.

If the market says the scheduling isn't right, Sanzar has to listen.

- Herald on Sunday

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