What is Super Rugby actually for: Do we want it to be the sport’s equivalent of the NRL and AFL by StuffsEarth

Estimated read time 32 min read

“The purpose of a system is what it does,” Stafford Beer famously said. In other words, if you’ve got a system that persistently fails to do what you want it to, there is no point in maintaining the pretence that what you want it to do is what the system is for.

You might believe that the treadmill in your living room is there to help you get fit, but if you haven’t turned it on in a year, you need to face the fact that that treadmill’s purpose is to hang washing on wet days.

By this measure, the purpose of Super Rugby Pacific, at least from an Australian perspective, is to be watched by very small numbers of people, supply players for mediocre Wallaby teams, and end in disappointment every year.

That’s what it does.

Phil Waugh can claim all he wants that this is not Super Rugby’s purpose, but the POSIWID, Phil. Deal with it.

Rugby Australia CEO Phil Waugh, New Zealand Rugby CEO Mark Robinson and Super Rugby Pacific Chair Kevin Malloy must work out what they want their domestic competition to mean. (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)

Now, obviously, we do not want Super Rugby to keep on doing this. We do not want the competition’s practical purpose to be so far away from its intended purpose, and many varied suggestions have been and are still being made as to how to close that gap.

Many of these suggestions are excellent, and emanate from very intelligent people.

But there is a big stumbling block standing in the way of moving Super Rugby towards doing what we want it do: nobody seems to know what that is.

To put the problem bluntly and succinctly, what is Super Rugby actually for? If the purpose of a system is what it does, it is also true that you can’t change a system’s purpose unless you know what you want that purpose to be, and right now I’m not sure anyone does.

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There a few approaches to take to SRP, and none of them are necessarily wrong, it’s just that unless we pick one and run with it, the whole thing will just trickle miserably away into nothing.

Should Super Rugby, for example, be an elite domestic comp – albeit spread across a few countries – in the manner of the AFL and the EPL and the NRL and the NBA and all those other collections of letters? A lot of the time, critics of the competition seem to want it to be such: unfavourable comparisons to the NRL and AFL in particular are rife.

Well, that’s great. It’d be awesome to have a rugby union competition that filled the role for the sport that those others do for theirs.

But right now Super Rugby ain’t it, and if it wants to be it’ll have to go hard on becoming it.

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Rob Valetini reacts following the Brumbies’ semi-final loss to the Blues at Eden Park. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

For a start, big dollars will need to be pumped into marketing, into promoting SRP as the fierce, high-quality, and tribal representation of rugby at its best.

And of those adjectives, “tribal” might be the most important.

If we want Super Rugby to truly live in the rarefied air of the NRL and AFL, we desperately need to get working on building proper identities for the franchises (it might help to stop calling them that, come to think of it), and pushing rivalries at every turn.

Getting fans to hate oppositions is crucial – not just Australians and New Zealanders hating each other, or even just NSW and Queensland, but Canberra hating Perth, NSW hating Otago, Auckland hating Fiji, etc etc.

On the playing side, if SRP wants to be a serious domestic comp, then the season needs to be longer, and it needs to not simply be a curtain-raiser for the international program.

It is obviously tough, with an intensive and high-profile test schedule, to organise a domestic comp as well, but there’s no real reason why at least some of the SRP season can’t coincide with the Tests, the way NRL does with Origin.

Or even pause and resume Super Rugby after the internationals are finished.

It’s an awkward needle to thread, but if this is what we want Super Rugby to be, this is what we need to look at.

Oh and while we’re at it, stop letting more than half the teams make the finals.

Also, this approach really does require player movements being allowed between all the teams equally.

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The Blues ran out against the Brumbies for their semi-final in front of a half-full crowd at Eden Park on June 14, 2024. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Super Rugby can’t be taken seriously as a top-level club competition if players are only free to circulate between the clubs in their own country.

Is this a competition between clubs to be the best, or isn’t it?

Only if international selection is available to all who are eligible for their country, no matter which country their Super team is in, can this competition hit the heights we want it to.

If the powers that be are unwilling to make this change, then their priority is clearly not maximising SRP’s potential as a club competition, but using it only as an incubator for Test players.

But hey, maybe that is actually the way we should go.

That’s a valid view: see Super Rugby not as the rugby equivalent of the NRL or AFL, but as the rugby equivalent of the Sheffield Shield.

In many ways this would be a relief, because we could stop trying so hard to care about it.

So, we accept that Super Rugby teams do not exist to succeed in their own right, but merely to prepare players for the next step up, and give Test coaches a guide to selection.

Well, that’s fine.

In that case, a whole bunch of money on marketing just got saved.

The direction of all the teams should be dictated by the coaching staff of the national sides, and players should be distributed throughout the franchises with a view to getting the best read on their suitability for international duty.

Super Rugby games should be viewed first and foremost as practice matches, in which team results matter far less than individual performances (except inasmuch as, obviously, the best individual performance is always the one that maximises the team’s chances).

Under that model, obviously, crowds and viewing figures really don’t matter.

We can look at Australian rugby the way we look at Australian cricket: the national side is the only preoccupation, and other levels are there to serve it.

Promote the hell out of the Wallabies, and don’t worry about pushing the provinces – that’s not what they’re for. (New Zealand can take the same course with the All Blacks, of course, but I’m much more comfortable telling other Australians what to do).

Australia and Wales contest a line out during the Rugby World Cup 2023, Pool C match at the OL Stadium in Lyon, France. Picture date: Sunday September 24, 2023. (Photo by Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images)
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Australia and Wales contest a lineout. (Photo by Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images)

Or should we look at Super Rugby as neither of those two models?

Should it be something more like an expansion of the old interstate clashes – a rugby version of State of Origin, essentially (or maybe what Origin as in the 80s and 90s before it became the be-all and end-all of league achievement)?

If we looked at it like that, we’d probably want to actually shorten the season, and possibly cut the number of teams as well.

What we’d want is to make every SRP game a major event in its own right, a clash of the titans feel.

If international rugby remained the pinnacle, representing your state or province would be a major deal as well.

Under that model, Australia would need to take a leaf out of New Zealand’s book and try to beef up its next rung down: raise the profile of domestic teams around the country so that fans are able to follow their fortunes and engage with the excitement of speculating on who is likely to ascend to Super Rugby level.

This would mean simultaneously slimming down the Super franchises administratively, as the Super teams would not be the permanent home for their players – their base would be their local club, with the hope of going into camp with a Super team if they could win selection.

So, do we want Super Rugby to be a world-class club competition, a major representative event, or a low-key feeder for Test rugby? Or some other thing I’ve not even thought of?

Frankly, I don’t mind which way SRP jumps, as long as they decide on a direction and, when the time comes, jump as hard and as far as they can.

Pick a lane and commit one hundred per cent. It’s the only way.

Because frankly, if we just keep going the way we’re going, we’re going to have to accept that the true purpose of Super Rugby is to die.

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Alienx https://www.stuffsearth.com

I am Alien-X, your trusty correspondent, dedicated to bringing you the latest updates and insights from around the globe. Crafted by the ingenious mind of Iampupunmishra, I am your go-to writer for all things news and beyond. Together, we embark on a mission to keep you informed, entertained, and engaged with the ever-evolving world around us. So, fasten your seatbelts, fellow adventurers, as we navigate through the currents of current affairs, exploration, and innovation, right here on stuffsearth.com.

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