Rugby: Ref challenges proposed

By Michael Brown

The most recent Blues vs Crusaders match was watched by more than 300,000 Kiwi TV viewers. Photo / Getty Images
The most recent Blues vs Crusaders match was watched by more than 300,000 Kiwi TV viewers. Photo / Getty Images

It's come in for a bit of a battering but while the physical shape of 15-team Super Rugby will not change much next year, the technology could, with the possibility mooted of 'challenges' to referees' decisions, as in tennis and cricket.

The most meaningful discussions regarding the competition could come around officiating and the use of technology. There have been a number of instances when poor decisions have cost teams games.

New Zealand Rugby Players' Association boss Rob Nichol believes there is a case for using TV replays more extensively to determine whether a try should be awarded, even going so far as suggesting captains or coaches have the ability to challenge a decision in the same way as American football and tennis.

"This year alone, there have been three or four times when coaches have said they would have liked the opportunity to challenge and they would have got it right," Nichol says. "We need to look at the way the game is being played and the speed of it and the importance of getting decisions right.

"Are we making the best use of technology? Are we supporting referees on the paddock? I suspect there's an opportunity to do things better there."

This will be considered alongside concerns about making sure technology doesn't interfere too much with a game that already has significant stoppages.

There is little support for a second referee, with concerns about the flow of the game and consistency of officiating.

However, despite numerous calls for changes to be made to next year's Super Rugby competition, little will alter in the immediate future. There have been complaints about anomalies with the draw, length of the competition and number of injuries.

But the current structure is what was sold to broadcasters until 2015 and there is little that can be done, unless all parties agree, to change that. Rugby bosses will review things at the end of the season but will take a closer look at the end of 2012 when the rugby calendar returns to normal after World Cup year.

They will have a better sense of how things are bedding in then and will also know whether the public tolerate a three-week break for internationals in June when Super Rugby is gathering momentum. It could result in pressure for an earlier start to the competition to get it finished before international rugby takes over.

Despite consternation from various corners - fans, commentators, players - crowd and TV viewing figures suggest this year's competition is hanging in there, with the big derbies popular.

The Christchurch earthquake badly affected Crusaders' crowds, as did bad weather which hit a number of Chiefs games.

The New Zealand average of 12,951 is flat on last year but 30,000 turned out when the Blues hosted the Crusaders at Eden Park and 20,031 for the Highlanders vs Crusaders match in Dunedin (the largest crowd for a Super Rugby match at Carisbrook since the 1998 final).

Viewing numbers in New Zealand are strong and rounds 15-17 saw a 46 per cent increase on the first 14 weeks of the competition.

That includes more than 300,000 viewers for the crunch Blues vs Crusaders match, which is the first time more than 300,000 have tuned in to a Super Rugby game since the Hurricanes met the Chiefs in round 13, 2009.

Interestingly, 265,000 watched the Chiefs take on the Hurricanes in Hamilton a fortnight ago even though both teams were out of the race for the playoffs.

Australian crowds are up 16 per cent to 20,745 - the 48,200 who turned out in Brisbane for the Reds against Crusaders was a record for a Super Rugby match in Australia - and viewing numbers are also up 28 per cent. South Africa is holding firm in both average crowd (27,458) and viewing figures, and 960,000 watched the Bulls beat the Stormers a fortnight ago.

One of the biggest changes this season has been more derby matches. New Zealand crowds typically swell by 4000 above cross-conference games but games involving teams from other conferences often rate just as highly in South Africa - like the Stormers and Crusaders (48,492) at Newlands.

A major criticism of the competition, however, is the fact the Australian conference is weaker than the other two, gifting the Reds and Waratahs an easier passage to the playoffs. But derbies have proved popular with players and fans and are here to stay.

Another complaint is the fact teams don't play two of the other sides. This benefited some (the Sharks didn't play the Reds or Highlanders) and hindered others (the Crusaders didn't play the Lions or Rebels). But that will not change while New Zealand and South Africa remain committed to their domestic competitions (ITM and Currie Cups).

"In an ideal situation, everyone would play everyone else," Sanzar chief executive Greg Peters says, "but there are only so many weeks in the year. To accommodate those games and the [home-and-away] local derbies doesn't work. We also have a three-week break in June next year [for internationals] and then the ITM and Currie Cups.

Expansion isn't on the immediate agenda, even though reports out of South Africa intimate the Southern Kings will enter the competition from 2013. There have also been suggestions a team from the islands or Japan could be a possibility.

"We need to make sure the 15 teams we have are doing as well as they can before we look at future expansion," Peters says.

More could actually become less in the long run. The length of the rugby season is a major concern for Nichol and he would like to see the season scaled back to run from mid-March to late-November.

"You might find that we have a Super 18 with two divisions that actually shortens the competition," he says. "Or we could reduce the number of teams."

- Herald on Sunday

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