What has gone wrong with the Super 15? Crowd numbers at rugby stadiums around the country are dwindling and the general level of interest seems considerably more subdued than in previous years.
Clearly, something other than the customary problem of garnering attention during summer-like conditions is at play. Of most concern is that this is happening despite attempts to make the championship more attractive. On the evidence of this year, at least some of these should be re-examined. One is the dividing of the competition into separate conferences for the New Zealand, Australian and South African teams. This was intended to ramp up interest through the playing of local derbies.
It may have had the opposite effect. Only a few weeks ago, the Blues were playing the Highlanders. This weekend, they are at it again at Eden Park. Could it be that familiarity is breeding contempt?
The structure has other demerit points. There is less opportunity to attend matches featuring teams from South Africa and Australia, which offered not only the chance to see new players but to assess different approaches.
Additionally, the conference system makes it less obvious where individual teams sit in the overall championship.
The extra powers handed to television match officials has also backfired to some extent. They were intended to increase the accuracy in officiating, and eliminate egregious errors in the immediate lead-up to a try. In practice, this too often leads to overly long interruptions to play. Rather than make quick decisions, the TMOs tend to want to see things every which way.
Minutes tick by, even though the evidence of, say, a forward pass seems clear enough at an early stage. Many referees, for their part, are too quick to go upstairs, rather than trust their own judgement.
The spectacle of the game is also being diminished by the number of scrum resets. Practices that have sprung from rule changes intended to prevent this seem, in fact, to have cultivated it.
Time drifts by as scrums are set time and again. The rugby purist may find some appeal in this but not the average spectator. Some are even speaking favourably of the non-combat zone that is the rugby league scrum. Scrummaging experts suggest the new rules are, in fact, an improvement. That suggests refereeing intrusion and player shortcomings may be the main offenders.
In other respects as well, the players cannot escape culpability for where Super 15 is going wrong. The increasing absence of All Blacks on sabbaticals does nothing for the credibility or appeal of the competition.
Nor does the absence of some players for apparently slight reasons. Jeremy Thrush highlighted this last weekend when he missed the Hurricanes' match against the Highlanders to attend a family wedding. It seems astounding that attending this event could clash with his commitments to the franchise.
Other on-field happenings have not helped. Some referees have made lamentable mistakes, and the game's complex rules continue to bemuse. But these are part and parcel of any rugby season. Sanzar, which runs the Super 15, needs to pay attention to the fresh shortcomings that have failed to fire-up fans this year. Adding a team from Argentina and another from South Africa after next year to create a Super 17 will not remedy these. But it should be the opportunity to introduce a more fan-friendly format.