Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Pressure mounts on Sanzaar for fairer Super Rugby format

Blues halfback Augustine Pulu says games against New Zealand teams test players in a way they don't experience against other nations. Photo / photosport
Blues halfback Augustine Pulu says games against New Zealand teams test players in a way they don't experience against other nations. Photo / photosport

New Zealand's Super Rugby teams have had enough of things as they are. They want change. They want a different Super Rugby format in place by next year because they feel a growing sense of injustice about how things are currently set up.

Complaints about Super Rugby are not new, but the intensity of ill-feeling is. As is the strength of the desire to force Sanzaar into agreeing the format for 2018 has to provide a fair path for all.

It's not the New Zealand way to campaign for change publicly, but privately all five franchises have told the New Zealand Rugby Union that the current format lacks fairness, integrity, credibility and carries both reputational and financial risks.

Those points were being made overnight in London by NZ Rugby chief executive Steve Tew, who was meeting his Sanzaar counterparts to discuss the future of Super Rugby.

The mood could turn ugly if Sanzaar continues to reject New Zealand's claims that they are providing nearly all of the intrigue, all of the drama, the compelling rugby and therefore driving the audience and pulling all the associated financial levers and yet, statistically, it is harder for them to win a home playoff.

They have been careful to make it clear the inequality is not driven by the subjective measurement of the New Zealand Conference being tougher than the others. The problem lies with more objective concerns - such as the imbalanced number of teams in the two African Conferences and the two guaranteed home playoff spots that come with it.

The inequality is based in fact but the first few weeks of this season have only strengthened the perception that, increasingly, Super Rugby appears to be a two-tier competition.

It is beyond reasonable doubt that the quality of rugby within the conference is higher than it is anywhere else, fuelling the perception it is harder to win the New Zealand Conference than it is to win the actual title.

Recent viewing figures have illustrated the imbalance. Last week Australians largely rejected games involving their own teams and instead watched the two Kiwi derby games.

New Zealand players and coaches are starting to feel as if they are knocking lumps out of each other for the entertainment of everyone else. Tonight the Highlanders will play their third straight game against Kiwi opposition: a run that has inflicted them with a massive injury toll.

The clash at Eden Park, regardless of the weather, is destined to be brutal. The Highlanders are desperate and the Blues are determined to impress in their first home game of the season.

It will be another frenetic, demanding, crushing battle that will be a level above any other rugby on offer at the same time. Both sets of players will be taken to their limits in a way they won't be when they play teams from Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan.

"It is always going to be like that," says Blues halfback Augustine Pulu. "Playing teams from your own country ... the boys know each other and are pretty keen to get into each other. I have been around for a wee while so I know what it takes to play against New Zealand teams. You have got to get up for it. Really get up for it. They are so much more intense."

What makes life excessively tough for both teams is that six days later, the Blues have to play the Crusaders in Christchurch while the Highlanders will be on their way to Wellington to play the Hurricanes.

The endless battering they will endure is at odds with what the South African sides are experiencing in their respective conferences given the weaknesses of the Sunwolves, Kings and Cheetahs.

When New Zealand sides complained last year that the finals format lacked integrity because teams with more competition points were forced to play away from home in the quarter-finals, Sanzaar rejected their calls for change.

There will be zero tolerance in New Zealand for a similar rejection. "It is what it is," said Blues coach Tana Umaga about the current set-up. "We have just got to adjust it. All we want , like everyone else in this country, is a fair amount of tough games.

It has to be the same for everybody ... We have had these discussions before and they [Sanzaar] know how we feel so they have to make those decisions on the recommendations we have put forward."

- NZ Herald

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