Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Less is more for Super Rugby

The invasion of new teams in Super Rugby, such as the Kings and Sunwolves pictured above, has been awful and lowered the competition standard, writes Gregor Paul. Photo / Getty Images
The invasion of new teams in Super Rugby, such as the Kings and Sunwolves pictured above, has been awful and lowered the competition standard, writes Gregor Paul. Photo / Getty Images

When it comes to Super Rugby, New Zealand Rugby have a clear idea about expansion.

And it goes like this: they are right, everyone else is wrong.

Their certainty on this comes from looking at their bank balance. Expanding to 18 teams saw the broadcast value of Super Rugby jump by 100 per cent.

There will be an estimated $350 million flowing into New Zealand rugby over the next five years from TV income alone. This new-found wealth has come at a cost, though.

The rugby consumer has to put up with significantly increased amounts of bitter to sit with the sweet.

Their world has been invaded by the likes of the Sunwolves, Jaguares and Kings - all of whom have been predictably awful.

The arrival of these new teams has also weakened others, spread the talent base too thin and left Super Rugby as a two tier competition.

The games between the top eight sides are intense, engaging and brutal. The rest are largely forgettable, thump-and-bump affairs between teams who are heavily populated with players who simply aren't good enough and never will be for this level.

Super Rugby has lost any right it may ever have had to call itself the toughest club competition in the world. It has lost any right it may have once had to say it is driving skill levels to new heights and the world leader in innovation and creativity.

Now, about half the games mostly look like the mistake-riddled stodge that blights Europe.

But it's richer than it has ever been and that is being sold as critical - game saving, even.

The age-old contention that without money, every All Black would be off to the richer markets of Europe is being trotted out by New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew.

He has said it's imperative Super Rugby expands again in 2021, to establish teams in new territories and have a greater presence in fledgling markets such as Asia and South America. Tew also says that if New Zealand just stuck to playing themselves it wouldn't be long before the game was finished here.

This, though, is nothing more than an argument of convenience and scaremongering of the laziest kind.

It implies there is no sensible middle ground to explore, that the choices for Super Rugby are world domination or go bust.

It also massively contradicts previous assertions from New Zealand Rugby that the battle to retain players has never been fought on straight financial terms.

What keeps the best players here is the lure of the All Blacks, the quality of coaching and compassionate welfare policies that create family environments where the individuals feel valued and respected.

Besides, even with all this new-found wealth, New Zealand Rugby can't get remotely close to matching the salaries on offer in Europe where the likes of Wasps are willing to pay almost $3 million a season for a marquee overseas player.

So if player movement is determined exclusively by money, then the game here is as vulnerable now with 18 teams and $350 million of broadcast revenue as it was with 15 teams and $125 million.

And that's really the point in all this. New Zealand Rugby need to consider the possibility that not everyone else is wrong on the topic of expansion.

It's patently not true to say broadcasters won't be interested in a cross-border competition that features less teams but more high quality, dramatic and spectacle-driven rugby.

A significant proportion of the current broadcast income came from selling the rights to the UK and Europe.

Given both these territories have their fill of domestic rugby dross, they were presumably paying handsomely for Super Rugby rights because of their hope it would be a point of significant difference - faster, more skilful, full of intense clashes that would keep everyone gripped.

They might now be wondering if they were right to have spent what they did and maybe when Sanzar knock on the door next time, trying to sell the US Thundercats against the Taipei Tigers, UK and European broadcasters will keep their chequebooks closed.

The maxim of less is more is one everyone in the Southern Hemisphere has to consider.

Restore Super Rugby to a tighter group of better resourced teams where the quality each week is indisputable and who knows? That may transpire to be a highly sellable and globally sought after broadcast asset.

- NZ Herald

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