Rumours came out this week that Super Rugby is in for another facelift. The heyday of the competition’s inception certainly seems like a long time ago, when weekend games were eagerly anticipated and we arranged our Friday and Saturday night revelry around watching the Super Rugby games. It was perfect, the 7:30pm NZ kickoff followed immediately by a 9:30pm game in Australia on both a Friday and Saturday night. But Super Rugby is suffering from the same affliction that sporting leagues all over the world are – increased consumer choice, fragmentation of audiences, and the simple fact that a lot of people are happier watching a game from the comfort of their couch on their high-definition flat screen TV than in the actual stadium.
There are definitely some improvements that can be made to the Super Rugby competition. The conference system seems to be universally despised. Having followed American sports closely I understand the benefits of a conference system. It serves two purposes really:
To create within-conference rivalries or derby games with more heat on them.
To create an even draw structure (within each conference) in a competition where every team doesn’t have to play every other.
But conferences do introduce anomalies between conferences, and that’s not unique to the lopsided Super Rugby competition. In the NFL the Seattle Seahawks made the playoffs in 2010 with a losing 7-9 win-loss record. Not only that, as divisional winners they got to host the superior 11-5 New Orleans Saints and beat them in their opening playoff game (thanks in no small part to Marshawn Lynch’s earthquake-inducing touchdown run: https://giphy.com/gifs/HWm8bA6eCA4ow/html5
The New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers had already gone fishing by this stage, with winning 10-6 records they didn’t even make the playoffs.
This is a familiar scenario with modern day Super Rugby. The Australian teams have been pretty inept in recent years, yet due to the vagaries of the conference system they are guaranteed a home playoff spot.
The other big issue with Super Rugby has been a dilution of competition. Expansion has come at a huge cost to quality. Games against teams such as the Sunwolves, Jaguars, Kings, Rebels and Force just don’t carry much interest. The expansion has really hurt quality across the board too, not just of the added teams.
Take the Australian teams for example. When Australia supported only 3 teams they were very competitive on a yearly basis. They just don’t have the depth to support 5 teams. The below chart looks at the average finish of Australian teams in the regular season, controlling for the total number of teams each season (since going from 12 to 18 teams would naturally make the average finishing position drop). It’s quite clear that even when controlling for the total number of teams, the Australian teams performance has been on a steady decline. At the inception of Super Rugby, Aussie teams averaged finishing in the top 40% of the competition, in recent years they’ve averaged being in the bottom 30%.
Expansion doesn’t seem to have hurt the South Africans as much. Their average finish has been fairly flat since Super rugby inception, and actually trending slightly upwards despite going from 4 teams to 5 teams in 2006 and up to 6 teams last year. South African teams have performed poorly overall though, and average finishing in the bottom 40% of the competition since it began. In 21 seasons a South African team has finished last on the table 13 times. In 7 of those seasons a fellow South African team was just 1 place above them in second last.
The Jaguars and Sunwolves don’t look as though they’ll add quality to the competition for quite some years. All of this expansion and dilution of quality of course benefits the one country that has stayed with 5 teams since the start, New Zealand. New Zealand teams have been steadily trending upwards in their average finish, highlighted by last year averaging inside the top 30% in the standings.
I think for the good of the overall competition, trimming back some teams can only be a good thing. It will help restore some balance to the conference system. Derby games within conferences are definitely the way forward, so addressing the imbalances between conferences will go a long way towards getting the Super back in to Super Rugby.
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