Super Rugby’s continued expansion has caused an inexorable decline in quality, writes Gregor Paul.

Whatever the motivation for Super Rugby expansion, it can't have been driven by any conviction the new teams would contribute meaningfully.

No one had any basis to suggest that new teams have improved the quality of rugby and competed gallantly for playoff spots and, therefore, three more sides were a must.

The evidence is overwhelming that the more Sanzar have added, the less fearsome the competition has become. Super Rugby's new additions over the years - Force, Cheetahs and Rebels - have lived at the bottom of the table, creating a two-tier tournament.

The numbers paint a bleak picture. They show the new teams collectively have a win ratio of just 31 per cent. If the Lions are counted as an expansion team, formed in their current state only in 2007, then the collective win ratio is slightly less than 31 per cent.


The three genuine expansion sides have won a total of 117 games. Over the same period, the Crusaders on their own have won 110.

There's other, if less tangible evidence, that says expansion has generally weakened the Australian and, in particular, South African conference. Between 2011 and 2015, only four South African teams made the semifinals.

That means only 20 per cent of all semifinal places in that period were claimed by South African teams. That's down from 35 per cent between 2006 and 2010 and under an edict that the winner of each conference between 2011 and 2015 was guaranteed a playoff spot.

More worrying yet was that last year, New Zealand teams won half their games in South Africa - their best return since 2011 - while only one South African side won in New Zealand. A victory for the Lions against the Blues was all they managed - their worst collective effort in Super Rugby history - and their sole representative in the playoffs, the Stormers, finished outside the top six but made the playoffs only as conference winners.

It is impossible to build an argument that, from the perspective of becoming more competitive and lifting the standard of the game, Super Rugby needed more teams.

But as with all statistics, there are bright spots that have been manipulated to justify expansion. Putting professional teams in Perth and Melbourne has helped drive significant growth in playing numbers in Western Australia and Victoria specifically and Australia generally. In 2014, 687,000 Australians played some form of rugby. That compares with 261,000 in 2011.

Without their own provincial competition, Australia have long advocated Super Rugby expansion. That gives their players enough top-flight football to lessen the need for a domestic competition.

So while Australia have used Super Rugby to fund their player development and drive participation growth, New Zealand's provincial championship has diminished in importance and been relegated to a feeder tournament. Participation numbers also saw marginal growth between 2011 and 2014, climbing from 145,000 to 150,000.

The upside for New Zealand is that broadcast revenue has jumped markedly since 2011, with estimates the new deal is worth around 30 per cent more than the previous agreement. The lessening of New Zealand Rugby control around sponsorship arrangements is also thought to have improved the balance sheets of the five teams, with more corporates now able to invest.

It is amid these conflicting scenarios that Sanzar have argued expansion has brought more good than bad. Financial growth has been equated with improvement and spurious arguments about Super Rugby titles now being tougher to win have found oxygen.

But if Super Rugby is harder to win, it is only because the season is so much longer. It's the grind that has become hard to manage - the physical battering and mental challenge of being up for a maximum of 19 rather than 13 games has made it tougher on players.

For the New Zealand teams, greater exposure to each other has added a layer of difficulty. From 1996 to 2010, they faced each other once. During 2011-15, it became home and away. Under the new format, the New Zealand teams will play each other once and half of the conference a second time.

It means local derbies will drop from eight a season to six and that is potentially significant. The pace, intensity and physicality of New Zealand derbies since 2011 has had a huge role in preparing players for test football. The New Zealand teams have hammered each other in pseudo All Blacks trials and these are the games that have been the making of young men such as Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick and Beauden Barrett.

Since 2011, the Waratahs and Stormers have provided consistently stiff resistance, with the Bulls, Sharks, Reds and Brumbies intermittently delivering. There's been enough tough games to shape and prepare New Zealand's top players and back-to-back World Cups lends weight to the official view that expansion has been good for the game. However, it paints an equally compelling argument that, from a playing perspective, the competition needs less teams, not more. Each year, usually five to seven teams offer little. So why have them? The evidence points to an obvious solution - cut the number of teams and introduce a home-and-away round-robin.

But Australia won't vote for that because it will cut the pipeline of Super Rugby money funding their domestic growth.

The South Africans won't go for it because they have to balance the political aspirations of their regions.

And New Zealand would be wary, fearing that the broadcast rights wouldn't sell for as much.