Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Super format up for discussion

The dynamic halfback battle between Tawera Kerr-Barlow (pictured) and Augustine Pulu is one 
of the many match-ups that typify all that's good about Super Rugby's local derbies. Photo / Photosport
The dynamic halfback battle between Tawera Kerr-Barlow (pictured) and Augustine Pulu is one of the many match-ups that typify all that's good about Super Rugby's local derbies. Photo / Photosport

The timing is poignant. As the Blues and Chiefs smash lumps out of each other in Hamilton, on the other side of the world in Dublin, a group of executives will be trying to determine whether this high octane, tribal football should form a bigger component of future Super Rugby competitions.

Local derbies, particularly in New Zealand, have become Super Rugby's redeeming feature. It won't just be top of the North Island New Zealanders gripped by the game at Waikato Stadium tonight, the whole country will be watching.

So, too, will plenty of Australians, South Africans and, in fact, anyone globally with an interest in rugby.

These games have everything - genuine rivalry, ferocity, intensity and a legion of individual battles such as Rieko Ioane going head-to-head with Anton Lienert Brown; Liam Messam and Steven Luatua; Augustine Pulu and Tawera Kerr-Barlow; Pauliasi Manu and Nepo Laulala.

With only one guaranteed home quarter-final for New Zealand teams, these intra-conference games have a huge impact on final placements.

A decent crowd will turn up at Waikato Stadium and as well as the fans loving these games, so do the accountants.

The question, though, is how many local derbies can Super Rugby sustain? They are close to test intensity and as much as the players love the challenge, they are wary about having to play too many.

But equally, everyone - players, coaches, broadcasters, executives, administrators and sponsors - is wary of how much the competition has been diluted by the expansion to 18 teams. Do the local derbies hold such a treasured place now because they are so at odds with many of the cross-border contests?

The Chiefs and Blues going to the wire at breakneck pace has an appeal that the Hurricanes destroying the Sunwolves never will, and yet, as an extra complicating factor, those who make their living out of the game have to be conscious that Super Rugby's wider geographic footprint has brought 100 per cent more broadcast dollars.

So Sanzaar executives will decide in Dublin on what the format of 2018 will look like. The balance, they all agree, is not quite right. The good is great, the bad is really bad and can they find a middle ground where the competition has a higher number of games which are both visually compelling and commercially viable?

The options are to cut one, two or even three teams and then see how that would affect the format. Could a round-robin become a reality again if there are 15 teams?

Speaking before he left for Europe, New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew said: "We are not going to react to one weekend's results in this season, but clearly the expansion has tested a number of countries' abilities to be competitive and that's the challenge we're working our way through.

"We need a competition that has integrity, has to be competitive, and has to be in the best interest of the countries that are participating in it.

"What we do need is some agreement on some of the core principles and the framework which we work under.

"I'm hoping that will happen at this meeting and there is no secret that we're trying to get an agreement as to what 2018 will look like. I'm mildly hopeful that that might be concluded at this meeting. But if it's not, we'll take the time to get it right."

- NZ Herald

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