Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Sanzaar relying on SBW factor to push season

Sonny Bill Williams. Photo / Getty Images.
Sonny Bill Williams. Photo / Getty Images.

The Super Rugby draw, the toughest in world sport to put together according to organisers Sanzaar, has been released to what can be charitably described as a lukewarm response.

A major gripe for many will be the opening game. It's not the defending champion Hurricanes at home against a New Zealand rival - they play the Sunwolves in Tokyo in round one in a match likely to result in a cricket score such will be the gulf in class.

No, game one of the Southern Hemisphere's premier domestic rugby competition pits the Rebels against the Blues in Melbourne on Thursday, February 23, kick-off 9.45pm NZT.

In explaining the draw to Radio Sport's Kent Johns today, Sanzaar boss Andy Marinos said a blockbusting start to the new competition was critical. However, the only derby matches in round one feature the Highlanders v Chiefs, an Australian match-up (Waratahs v Force) and two all-South Africa clashes.

"Obviously the emphasis has been to try to get as many local derbies as we can in week one," Marinos said. "In an ideal structure you'd have a whole lot of derbies and nothing else, but we can't get there, so when you look at the first round there's a number of pretty compelling match-ups and a pretty good way to start the season off."

Asked how a match between the Rebels, who lost every game against New Zealand teams last year, and the Blues qualified as compelling, Marinos said: "It's a good match for this market over here, and again, it's not an exact science ... that Rebels v Blues game is also pretty significant in seeing the return of Sonny Bill Williams to Super Rugby and a new franchise."

Listen: Radio Sport's Kent Johns discusses the Super Rugby draw with Hurricanes CEO Avan Lee:

Blues coach Tana Umaga won't be the only one hoping Williams' Achilles injury has recovered in time. It appears a successful start to the new competition depends on it.

Otherwise, Marinos was bullish about how good the competition was last season in its new format of 18 teams split into four conferences, which many found confusing. It's not broken, he said. "It had some really good games, some good results, and ultimately a fantastic final in the end."

More of an issue was the commentary surrounding it, particularly the "negative media that we attracted during the competition when I really believe the competition has actually been really good. There's been a huge emphasis on the things that haven't worked... as opposed to focusing on the success that we've seen in the competition".

A recent criticism by the Hurricanes and Crusaders has been the way South African and Australian conference winning teams qualify for home playoff matches despite having lower points totals than their New Zealand counterparts, but Marinos said: "We're very aware of that... because of the exceptional performances coming out of New Zealand in the past season that issue was heightened. There are a lot of other factors you have to consider.

"Irrespective of what the format was, ultimately we had the two best teams in that final and the best team on the night won."

Brendan Morris, Sanzaar's operations manager, described the draw as "probably one of the most complex draws in world sport. We play over five territories in 15 different time zones and there's all sorts of challenges around logistics and particularly long-haul travel".

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