Reason: 6 SA Super Rugby sides not enough

MARK REASON
Last updated 05:00 02/03/2014

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OPINION: The proposal to bring another South African team into Super Rugby has caused outrage among New Zealand coaches and supporters, and I share their outrage. It's a hare-brained scheme. Six teams from the Republic? The numbers just don't stack up. South Africa should have at least seven teams and arguably more.

Now before you all feed this page of newsprint to the livestock, hear me out. When I first read of Sanzar's latest proposals, I reacted like most of the country, with a cocktail of indignation, resentment and outrage. There's nothing like a bit of first-rate fulmination in the morning to make us all feel a whole heap better.

But when I then started digging into the numbers, I understood Sanzar's position on South Africa but not their solution. The proposed 17-team format is ludicrous. It is a result of adding bits to an already broken model, instead of ripping it up and starting again.

I suggest a 16-team Super Rugby competition split into two conferences, the Pacific Conference and the Atlantic Conference. The Atlantic Conference consists of seven teams from South Africa and one team from Argentina. The Pacific Conference consists of four teams from New Zealand, three from Australia and one from the Pacific Islands.

Schedulers can do pretty much whatever they like with that model. They can play all the matches within the separate conferences, thus keeping down the expense of travel - both in terms of money and player wear-and-tear. Or they can fit in some extra inter-conference matches such as they do in the NFL, with the top teams from the previous season facing the harder match-ups.

The top two or top four teams from each conference would then go into the knockout phase. Again the schedule could be adapted, so the second and third teams, or the fourth and fifth teams play off for the final spot. These are decisions best made in consultation with TV who do, after all, fund the professional game.

When coming up with this model, I considered the priorities of the various unions. Number one is inevitably money. In order to avoid bankruptcy and to stop their top players from moving overseas, Sanzar has to generate income.

But having ceded the No 1 spot to Mammon and entertainment, player welfare and the global development of the game are issues that many rugby fans would like to see included. The above model incorporates those two elements.

Dave Rennie reacted to Sanzar's proposal by saying: "The New Zealand coaches wanted a legitimate competition where everyone plays everyone. All the other scenarios include more teams, more travel and more time away from home. Another South African side may generate more money but is it in the best interests of our players and the competition?"

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Rennie may not be a huge fan of my model either, because with four New Zealand teams, I suspect the Chiefs and the Canes would be the two to merge. That is not a huge leap. They have a similar philosophy, the worst crowd numbers and many of the players and coaches have jumped across regions. The South Auckland area is also an obvious home for the Pacific team.

Australia is cut to three teams, because they don't warrant any more in terms of playing ability, viewership or attendance. Perth would lose out because of the extra travel requirement on all the other teams. The Reds keep their franchise, the Waratahs keep a franchise and so do the Brumbies, with some road games in Melbourne.

South Africa has seven teams for as many reasons as you care to mention. Even that number does not come close to recognising the commercial imperative. There are various TV figures out there, but they are agreed that twice as many South Africans watch Super Rugby as New Zealanders and Australians combined.

There may be doubt as to the value of so many South African derbies under my new format, but again the viewing figures back it up. 13 of the 20 most viewed pool games in 2012 were South African derbies.

They dominate the numbers. The whole of New Zealand has a population of 4.5 million people. Durban and neighbouring Pietermartzburg, the locale of the Sharks, has a population of nearly four million. The Lions can draw on at least 3.7 million people from Jo'burg and Soweto combined. The Stormers of Cape Town 3.4 million. South Africa has three times the playing numbers. It has a population of 51 million and a huge TV franchise in Supersport to nourish those people.

And yet Sanzar shares out its profits. That is very generous of South Africa, but New Zealand and Australia cannot rely on such generosity continuing. It is by no means far-fetched to imagine South Africa, France and England coming together given the respective populations and TV audiences of those three countries.

If Sanzar is to stay strong, it has to recognise the commercial primacy of South Africa.

Some people may say that their weakest team is never competitive, but that is not strictly true. The Southern Kings finished last in 2013, but they had a winning overall record against Australian teams, beating the Force and the Rebels, drawing with the Brumbies and getting slaughtered by the Waratahs. The Kings would not have finished last if playing in the Aussie conference.

And how can you not have a team in the Eastern Cape, where East London and Port Elizabeth alone have a combined population of 1.4 million. Last season the Kings had the third highest average attendance with 31,783. The South African teams occupied five of the top seven places. Their average gate was 26,800 compared to 14,700 in New Zealand.

Super Rugby is a numbers game and South Africa are runaway champions. We need to wake up and smell the biltong.

- Sunday Star Times

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