Four weeks into Super Rugby Aotearoa, NZME sports journalists - chief rugby writer Liam Napier, Sports Editor-at-Large Dylan Cleaver and renowned columnist Chris Rattue - analyse the future of the game in New Zealand and where things are going right and wrong.
Should the future of New Zealand's top rugby competition stay within our borders?
Napier: Probably not. Five teams don't produce enough matches each week to keep the game afloat, and there must be serious questions about whether New Zealand has the depth to sustain any more teams at the same level - just look at the locking stocks. More local teams also means more costs. Money makes the oval ball turn and, thus, broadcasters want more games. Problem is, having been treated to Kiwi-only derbies, we now want to retain that level of intensity and interest. Australian teams won't provide the same level of competition each week but their proximity, particularly in times such as these, position them as the favoured solution with the addition of one Pacific Island team.
Cleaver: If New Zealand Rugby was to look inward at what fans here want, then absolutely the competition should stay domestic. The reality is they probably cannot afford to. Commercial partners and broadcasters want some international reach and the fear is a domestic competition won't achieve that, even if we are The Greatest Little Rugby Country on Earth. New Zealand must, however, be the dominant partner in any proposed transtasman or South Pacific competition. If Australia was a non-negotiable element of a new competition I'd target six or seven NZ franchises, just Queensland and New South Wales, a Pasifika side and ask for expressions of interest from either a Japanese or California-based American franchise.
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Rattue: Yes, but clearly it won't for the financial reasoning which dominates New Zealand Rugby's thinking. In my dream sequence, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand (and others) go back to running domestic competitions which feed into a short and sharp type of Champions League or sudden death deal. But rugby is now essentially run by either narrow self-interest or run-of-the-mill bureaucrats. The schemers and dreamers who have made professional sport what it is around the world are regarded as enemies at the gates. Nothing will change.
What has Super Rugby Aotearoa done well?
Napier: Part of it was circumstance, and the swift action of the government lockdown measures, but getting under way before anyone else, without any major issues, ensured attention both here and abroad was fixed. Sunday afternoon games have been a big hit, particularly in Auckland, and must be retained. After years of All Blacks being rested from at least two matches each season the consistent presence of elite players provided a simple drawcard. Genuine rivalries, such as the Crusaders and Blues this weekend and Beauden Barrett against Dane Coles, add another layer of intrigue that can't be manufactured.
Cleaver: Got up and running efficiently and without incident. The interest and crowds it has generated has been slightly misleading because of what preceded it, but make no mistake, this is the rugby (below All Black level) we want to watch. Almost forgot: a bastardised version of the Auckland-Canterbury rivalry is back, which the country needed more than it realised.
Rattue: Nothing out of the ordinary. It hasn't actually "done" anything. What it has revealed, or confirmed, is that traditional Kiwi rivalries and respect for time zones are vital. A lot of the rugby hasn't actually been that good. There is a lack of star power. And yet people are turning up in numbers, although the crowds do appear to be thinning. Many New Zealand fans would now much rather watch Southland play Taranaki than Pretoria play Brisbane, or even Pretoria play Auckland.
What could Super Rugby Aotearoa do better?
Napier: It's beyond their control to a point but covered stadiums would make the world of difference to the on-field product. No matter the time of year, matches under the Dunedin roof are consistently the best viewing. Meanwhile, Christchurch's dog of a venue treats us to mauls and mud baths in the middle of winter. The days of asking supporters to sit through pouring rain and pay for overpriced beer and hot chips are fast dwindling. As for the competition itself, there should at least be a final. Fewer games from an attritional point of view makes sense but fans, and players, deserve a proper finale. Letting fans on the pitch after games should be a frequent, not one-off, occurrence too.
Cleaver: Grab a handrail and hold on because this won't be popular. A lot of the country's best players are playing ordinary footy. It does make me wonder if we've arrived at the end of a great cycle of New Zealand rugby much faster than we could have anticipated. It feels like 1991.
Rattue: Well, rugby has just shopped its biggest current star – Beauden Barrett – to Japan. This, at a time when Barrett was helping wake the sleeping Auckland giant. It could not do things like that. What could make a huge difference is getting some rugby back live on free-to-air television, accompanied by more lively support programmes.
What is the biggest challenge facing rugby in New Zealand?
Napier: Where do you start? Retaining players. Engaging fans. Navigating a financial crisis and the inevitable private investment space. Halting the alarming decline in male player numbers. Staying relevant to the next generation who have so much more choice and diversity than previous eras. Learning to be much more open and accessible to promote the game. Saving the club game. Tackling the thorny issue that is schools rugby. That is probably enough for one day.
Cleaver: Oh nothing much - only an existential understanding of where the sport sits in New Zealand society (a clue: it's nowhere near as elevated as it was even a generation ago), allied to a fundamental reworking of the global economic model will see rugby continue to prosper. For close to 140 years New Zealand's apex sport, rugby's health was so precarious it nearly fell over because of a pandemic. Many jobs were lost, Steve Tew wangled money out of Grant Robertson to prop up five part-privately funded franchises (money that in all good conscious should be paid back), and all bar a couple of provincial unions continue to flounder. NZR CEO Mark Robinson should be taking out full-page ads every day (at a discount, obviously) thanking the country's science and government experts who got this country up and running before anywhere else.
Rattue: Using tradition rather than being trapped by it. An old-style obsession with the All Blacks and retaining the culture of unsmiling giants is killing the sport. It seems weirdly unaware of smart phones, tablets, Netflix, NBA, Twenty20 cricket, rugby league, Spotify, and on and on and on. Rugby needs to think 20 years ahead.
There were 26 penalties in the Hurricanes' win over the Chiefs on Sunday (one every three minutes). Is this strict refereeing approach good for the game?
Napier: No, it's a turnoff. The end goal – cleaning up the breakdown by providing much cleaner, quicker ball – is admirable, but it's now well past the point where referees need to ease up. Two weeks of constant whistle was more than enough. The third round brought a much better balance but 26 penalties is far too many stoppages. The best way to turn away a captive audience is to continue down this path.
Cleaver: A sizzling question that demands an, "On the one hand..." response. The areas referees - under a World Rugby diktat - are focusing on are the right ones. Offside infractions stifle creativity, while incorrect breakdown entry and exit slows the game down. Then again, so do endless penalties. Hmmm, I'm going to be glass half-full here and say this temporary pain should lead to long-term gain for the sport.
Rattue: Those 26 penalties are not the only problem. At one point 150 seconds of game time disappeared into a black hole between a scrum being called, and the Chiefs kicking a penalty into touch. That's not to mention the time off called by the ref.