Super Rugby format goes under the microscope
Scrapping Super Rugby derby fixtures could resuscitate the ailing national provincial championship, Crusaders boss Hamish Riach suggests.
Low attendances at NPC matches remain a concern and Riach wonders if the derbies introduced by Sanzar, who are now reviewing the post-2015 Super Rugby competition structures, over the past two years are having a detrimental effect on New Zealand's domestic competition.
Derbies have proved very popular with Crusaders fans but Riach questioned if they can be sustained.
"I wonder if they have taken interest off the [NPC] and I do wonder whether it makes for fair conferences when you could arguably say that different conferences have different strengths - especially when you have to play each other twice in that conference," Riach said.
"Yes, we are really interested in the retention of the derbies but - for us anyway - it's not an all-costs pursuit by any means."
He might not be saying it outright but there is little doubt Riach is questioning why the Australian teams have been allowed to benefit by playing in such a weak conference.
There is also a belief among most New Zealand and South African coaches that the top Aussie teams such as the Brumbies and Reds have an easier path to the finals.
There are also concerns among the NZ and SA camps that their players are being thrashed more because of the intensity of their derby fixtures.
In addition, there is the question of whether Kiwi fans are not attending NPC games because they have already watched so many local derbies during the Super Rugby season.
Representatives from the three Sanzar countries gathered in London last weekend to again debate the competition format, and although they hope to finalise a format by Christmas, that is not a hot deadline.
Riach would be unconcerned if negotiations dragged into the New Year. His major worry is that the competition's integrity is undermined by a half-baked format.
Under the current format not all teams play each other. That doesn't sit well with Riach.
"So the more teams you don't play in order to make the teams fit the windows you have got, then the less integrity it has got."
All parties are keen to scrap the June test window, which would allow Super Rugby to run non-stop, and it is likely up to 18 teams (the newcomers being a sixth South African team, an Argentinian side and possibly one from Japan) will be involved.
Fireworks are expected around the structure revamp.
Sanzar boss Greg Peters has indicated his organisation prefers two conferences of Australasia and South Africa/Argentina but South Africa won't wear that. Local derbies also hold little appeal for the South Africans.
Peters' suggestion also means the South African teams wouldn't meet their Australasian counterparts until the play-offs. Riach is lukewarm on this.
"One of the real flavours of Super Rugby is the South African teams. They are one-third of the kitchen stool and to just play them at the end [in the finals] would give a very different look and feel to Super Rugby, wouldn't it?
"I would be pretty nervous about such a big shift. You would have to be very cautious to take that step, I would think."
- © Fairfax NZ News
Which two NZ teams look the most likely to make the Super Rugby playoffs?