John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Super Rugby format is a tribute to NZ

The new format is an admission by the Sanzaar partners that after failing to compete on a level playing field, teams from other countries would be at risk of a shut-out. Photo / Backpagepix / Photosport
The new format is an admission by the Sanzaar partners that after failing to compete on a level playing field, teams from other countries would be at risk of a shut-out. Photo / Backpagepix / Photosport

We're hearing New Zealand Super Rugby franchises are getting seriously angry that they have to play each more often than other teams have to play them. They are saying the New Zealand conference is so much stronger than the others that it is probably harder to win it than it is to win the play-offs for the title.

And we are angry about this. We can be a strange breed.

It's modesty, I suppose, that stops us acknowledging what the Super Rugby format really means. It is an admission by the Sanzaar partners that after failing to compete on a level playing field, the others would be at risk of a shut-out from home play-offs without a set-up like this.

What an achievement for us this is when you think about it. Twenty years ago when professional rugby started and multiple teams from New Zealand, South Africa and Australia were slotted to play each other every season, it could have been expected to even out the standard by now. Instead, the New Zealand teams (even the Blues initially) got better and the rest by and large have not.

Another unexpected discovery was that matches between teams of the same country attracted bigger crowds and television audiences, at least in New Zealand, than "international" games. When Super Rugby started I was salivating at the thought of seeing teams from places such as Transvaal and Natal - names we knew only as distant, forbidding foes of All Blacks on tour. And I still get a thrill watching our teams measure up against big bruising Afrikaaners, but I seem to be unusual.

Home "derbies" have proved to be much more popular, which helped Sanzaar make the decision to adopt the conference system. So why are we grizzling that our sides have to play each other so much?

Well, maybe it's just the coaches complaining, but they shouldn't be. They are in a global centre of excellence, as business analysts would say. They are competing in the world's toughest arena of their enterprise, where high performance is constantly demanded, customers are well-informed and severely critical, where recruitment, skills, training and supporting industries are the best in the business and the product is consistently ahead of its rivals.

That formula for success will be familiar to anyone who remembers "The Porter Project on New Zealand" that applied Harvard Professor Michael Porter's theory of competitive advantage to this country mid-way through our economic reform. It found rugby to be a model of how to succeed with a small population and so far from large markets. And that was around 1990, before professionalism, Sky contracts and Super Rugby.

If the Porter Project looked at New Zealand rugby now they would be even more impressed. One of the project's interests was in the kind of government regulation that can strengthen industries exposed to international competition. The NZ Rugby Union issued one crucial regulation to its players when it put five regional teams into an international competition.

It said only New Zealanders playing for New Zealand teams would be picked for the All Blacks. It used the established mana of its national brand to offset the offers its best players would receive to play in bigger, richer markets.

Many said it wouldn't work, that money would trump mana and the All Blacks would be weakened unless exceptions were made. But it has worked brilliantly. We lose few players before their peak and our rugby dominates the game worldwide, not only with the All Blacks and the Super teams and the pace and style of our game, but through the coaches we export now.

There must be lessons here for all our international trade. New Zealand is on a roll now, with a rapidly growing population, booming tourism and strong products from farms, gardens, orchards and vineyards. Those products don't quite have a national brand with the mana of the All Blacks but they may not be far off it. A bit more investment in enforcing and promoting the excellence of products permitted to wear the silver fern could work wonders.

We probably should not be shy about putting more public money into infrastructure too, for tourism, fine food and wines, distinctive and competitive cultural products and sport.

Dare we build another stadium in Auckland, in the right place this time, after spending so much in recent years on Eden Park? Probably. We should have done if for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and probably would have done it if Trevor Mallard had not proposed such an obscene site on the central wharves.

We can afford to be a little less modest, recognise our strengths and play to them. Our rivals should be complaining about the Super Rugby format, not us. They need to compete with the best.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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