Turning back the clock on Super Rugby seems to have fixed it.

Word out of South Africa is that broadcast audiences in the early weeks were much increased on last year as they have been in Australia.

Attendances haven't uniformly climbed but there have been major lifts in various places. The Rebels drew their biggest crowd since 2011 when they played the Hurricanes and the Bulls have seen an average of almost 18,000 turn up to their home games compared with 9,000 last year.

The sense that the competition is in free fall - almost terminal decline - has at least halted.


Regardless of territory, what is driving the interest is the increased volume of intra-conference games.

Maybe not surprisingly, local audiences love local games and the fact there are more of them this year is at the heart of Super Rugby's revival.

Under the doomed 18-team format of 2016 and 2017 each team played six derbies, now they play eight and by doing so, Super Rugby has won back a number of disenchanted fans. Understandably, with the financial picture considerably brighter than it has been, executives from all teams and broadcasters, are adamant they want local games to dominate any future version of the competition.

That view is particularly strong in New Zealand, where the intra-conference games are at a completely different level to anything else.

There hasn't yet been a weekend when there hasn't been a rollicking New Zealand derby. They have come thick and fast and it won't be until week 11 that there is no all-New Zealand contest and only one other weekend when there is no local derby featuring Kiwi teams.
It is, presumably, deliberate that there has been at least one New Zealand derby each weekend and given their previous blundering in trying to build a consumer-friendly schedule, Sanzaar has to be acknowledged for at least giving everyone what they want.

Everyone, that is, except the players. They are not as sold on the eight derby games a year as everyone else.

The intensity and brutality of these clashes are what makes them so compelling, but the toll on the players is starting to mount.

Really mount and there is a dawning realisation that the incredible injury toll suffered by New Zealand's teams in the first eight weeks is possibly a direct consequence of so many local derbies.

The evidence is strong to believe that the injury count is higher when two New Zealand teams are on the park.

Almost every derby to date has taken major casualties. Last weekend Damian McKenzie, George Moala and Jerome Kaino were all damaged as the Blues and Chiefs knocked the living daylights out of each other.

Sam Whitelock and Ryan Crotty were both concussed playing against the Hurricanes. Liam Squire broke his thumb playing against the Crusaders; Nepo Laulala broke his arm playing against the Blues; Matt Todd broke his thumb playing against the Chiefs and Blues captain Augustine Pulu was ruled out for six weeks when he was playing against the Chiefs.

With the exception of Richie Mo'unga, who broke his jaw against the Stormers, the major injuries to New Zealand's players are coming when they play against each other.

Richie Mo'unga is one of a number of New Zealand players who have been injured in the early rounds of Super Rugby. Photo / Photosport
Richie Mo'unga is one of a number of New Zealand players who have been injured in the early rounds of Super Rugby. Photo / Photosport

Games against the South Africans, Australians, Sunwolves and Jaguares are not producing the same volume of injuries.

There is now a genuine question of sustainability as the players and coaches are beginning to wonder what state the troops will be in by the final few weeks of the competition.

It's not just the injuries that are mounting, but at some stage the mental and physical fatigue is going to grip.

The players can't keep giving as much as they have and still be doing so with the same venom come late July.

Not all of them anyway and its becoming apparent that Super Rugby may have fixed much of what was wrong before, but in doing so has created a whole new problem.

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