Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Will short-term gain in Super Rugby equal long-term pain?

There's no sense in cutting the Western Force if they are to be revived in the future. Photo / Getty
There's no sense in cutting the Western Force if they are to be revived in the future. Photo / Getty

The short term plan for Super Rugby to be cut from 18 teams to 15 next year has been unanimously agreed by the Sanzaar partners as the right move to make.

But as much as that makes sense as an immediate ploy to improve the intensity and structure of the competition, it has to be asked whether this is the right move longer term.

What is Sanzaar's vision for Super Rugby beyond the existing broadcast deal which expires at the end of 2019? That's a big question and clearly has a bearing on whether it makes sense to cut a team from Australia now, if it doesn't align with the longer-term strategy for the competition.

And given the current shambolic state of affairs where no one it seems has any clue why or how or even if the process of reduction is going to be handled, it would be foolish to assume that there is joined up thinking going at at any level.

Last year Sanzaar commissioned consultancy group Accenture to map out a 10-year plan for the next cycle of Super Rugby. The findings were presented to the Sanzaar executive in London earlier this month and will be further discussed and refined in the weeks to come.

It will, of course, be ridiculous to find out later this year that the long term plan is to have five teams in Australia, and for the next two seasons they are reduced to four. If five teams is the preferred number for Australia in 2020, then that needs to be the number of teams they have in next year's competition.

It will simply be stupidity on a new level to axe the Western Force for 2018, only to try to resurrect them again in 2020. Stupid, but then again, wasn't that the fate of the Kings? They played in the 2013 Super Rugby competition only to disappear in 2014 and 2015 and return last year, a shadow of the team they had been three years earlier?

Sanzaar have given no clue as to how they see the future, but increasingly it feels like the way forward may be to run Super Rugby as two distinct competitions - an Australasian conference and an African/rest of the world conference - and the top teams of each coming together for playoffs.

The broadcast and attendance figures are beginning to tell a story that can't be ignored - which is that the vast time differences between the countries involved is diminishing fan interest.

It's ambitious and bold to be running a competition across so many geographic territories, but it may also be impractical and unsustainable.

Running a trans-Tasman competition, however, well that could work well, if there is a Pacific team involved and perhaps the Sunwolves then that's probably going to tick enough boxes to keep fans, players, broadcasters and sponsors enthused.

Knowing there is a point where this competition connects with Africa and wherever else, gives the tournament greater scale without being unwieldy and cumbersome.

The mechanics of this would take some consideration but the point, should it have been missed, is that it would benefit New Zealand to see have as many strong teams in Australia as possible.

If the expansion from 15 to 18 teams has shown anything, it is surely that Super Rugby must pander to local and connected markets rather than spreading itself all over the world.

There's no long term future in New Zealand teams just playing each other so hyper local won't work. The future is a trans-Tasman conference and for that to have greater value, there really needs to be five teams from Australia.

- NZ Herald

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