Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Broken Super Rugby headed for a crisis

Empty seats at a Super Rugby match. Photo / Photosport
Empty seats at a Super Rugby match. Photo / Photosport

There's a danger that complaints about the format of Super Rugby have become white noise - a constant whine that has lost it's ability to be heard.

But here we are just one week into the new competition and only the wildest optimist or someone skilled in self-delusion wouldn't be able to see that the existing set-up is broken. Those begging Sanzar and its constituent members to vote for change need to be heard and the member constituents who have to decide in March whether to preserve the status quo for 2018 or chop the number of teams to 16 or 15, have to think carefully before they vote.

Self-preservation has always been the guiding principle within the Sanzar network but it would seem now, more than ever, that Southern Hemisphere rugby needs an element of short-term selflessness to create the prospect of longer term individual and collective growth.

Australia, South Africa and New Zealand are all facing the same threats.

They are all battling to retain players against the financial might of Europe and Japan and in the former two, it's a fight that is being lost. A vicious cycle has surely begun that as more players leave, the quality of individual teams drops and then more players want to leave.

Without changing something - either the number of teams or conference format - Super Rugby will be laughed out of town when it continues to sell itself as the self-proclaimed toughest club competition in the world. Worse than that, the overall commercial value of Southern Hemisphere rugby will diminish rapidly and so too will the ability of the respective national teams.

Last year the Springboks were mostly awful and while it's convenient to place the blame for that all on coach Allister Coetzee, it kind of misses the point that the players are a product of their Super Rugby environment.

While he's not everyone's cup of tea, former Australian Rugby Union boss John O'Neill delivered some inescapable truths last week, urging Sanzar to change direction in time for next year.

"It will take some very bold decision-making," O'Neill told the Daily Telegraph. "Am I suggesting it's an easy solution? No, it's not. But you cannot continue with an 18-team competition, which isn't even a genuine competition. Latitudinal competitions - east/west competitions - do not work."

But he, like so many others, doesn't want 18 teams and yet he's adamant that Australia shouldn't agree to axe one of their own. However bad the Rebels and Force have been since their inception, the majority of Australian decision-makers have no appetite to see them kicked out of Super Rugby.

The situation in South Africa is much the same. There's a general acceptance that the format isn't great, but having worked so hard to win a place for a sixth team, the South Africans aren't going to willingly or easily give it up.

Any vote for change has to be unanimous so the expectation is strong that South Africa and Australia, no matter that they may talk about their desire for change, will vote against it for fear they might be the ones forced to make it.

There is an outside hope that both nations have realised that if Super Rugby isn't yet in crises, it's destined to be. It is broken on so many levels, not just that there are too many teams playing across too many timezones.

If ever there was a game to illustrate all that is wrong with Super Rugby, it was Thursday night's opener in Melbourne. Of all the games and all the cities with which Sanzar could have whetted the rugby appetite, they chose Melbourne - showcasing the talents of the teams that came 12th and 13th last year.

That there were thousands of empty seats was hardly a surprise. And there were thousands of them - just a few pockets of curious and hardy locals willing to see if the Rebels could be something other than cannon fodder.

The fact Sanzar either didn't care or understand the madness of launching with such a dud said it all. The attitude persists that blithely ignoring reality is the best path to tread and that if something is force fed for long enough, people will come to enjoy it.

What happened on the field only confirmed how bad things are. The 56-18 scoreline illustrated the great divide that now exists between the five New Zealand teams and, with a few exceptions, the rest of the competition.

But the twist in this sorry tale comes at the end, when after romping through the competition, New Zealand's teams, except one, will be rewarded with away quarterfinals as a deal done with broadcasters three years ago has ensured that two Africa sides have a free pass to the last eight.

- NZ Herald

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