Time to close the door on Super Rugby - Bidwell

10:24 am on 29 April 2020

Opinion - If you didn't laugh, you'd cry.

Blues 1st-five Stephen Perofeta, during the Super Rugby match between the Blues and Crusaders, held at Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand.  14  February  2020       Photo: Brett Phibbs / www.photosport.nz

Blues first-five Stephen Perofeta evades a tackle from Crusaders wing George Bridge. Photo: PhotoSport

We all remember New Zealand Rugby's (NZR) last attempt at "refreshment.''

No, it was nothing to do with afternoon tea, just the appointment of longtime assistant Ian Foster to succeed Steve Hansen as All Blacks head coach.

Never mind how tired and ineffective Foster's tactics had become, NZR convinced themselves he and John Plumtree, Scott McLeod, Brad Mooar and Greg Feek were the "diverse group of thinkers'' the All Blacks needed to plot their path towards the next Rugby World Cup.

Now NZR are about to tackle Super Rugby via a review christened Araptipu, which promises to bring "regeneration and invigoration'' to the ailing competition.

Well, if Foster's ascension was anything to go by, don't hold your breath.

Let's be absolutely frank about this, Sanzaar - the body made up of South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina and which administers Super Rugby and The Rugby Championship - was starting to split at the seams long before Covid-19.

Fan and broadcaster interest was dwindling and reports out of South Africa suggested their sights were set on joining Europe's Six Nations and sundry club competitions.

Sanzaar's current broadcast deal does not expire until 2025, but this global pandemic has shifted the goalposts significantly.

What might have waited until 2026 now can't and we are now being given every indication New Zealand's franchises will find themselves playing in a trans-Tasman tournament each season.

South Africa's sides will find a home somewhere else, as culled Super teams the Cheetahs and Southern Kings already have done in Europe, but it remains to be seen what happens to Argentina and Japan.

Super Rugby started, of course, in the 1980s as the South Pacific Championship (SPC) featuring Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury, New South Wales, Queensland and Fiji.

You imagine the Brumbies, Rebels and Western Force will feature this time around, alongside our own Highlanders and Chiefs, but Fiji or Samoa or Tonga will be struggling.

More likely it'll just be a 10-team thing - with five sides each from New Zealand and Australia - that's neither a regeneration nor an invigoration. Let's just hope they don't call it Super 10, as the old SPC was known from 1993-1995.

We all recognise that rugby's footprint is going to have to be smaller and Australia might be as broad as New Zealand's horizons get for a while.

That's fine, in theory, and certainly was back in the 1980s and 90s.

But Australian rugby is in appalling shape right now and, while culling the Bulls and Sharks and Sunwolves et al will limit travel loads and potential exposure to Covid-19, it won't address the problem of competitiveness.

New Zealand fans increasingly want to see local derbies and the pre pandemic restructure to Super Rugby, for instance, was going to see our sides meet just once a season from 2021 on.

The problem, as ever for NZR, is money.

If they want to keep paying their best players $1 million, then a competition comprising 10 trans-Tasman teams of varying ability won't generate massive demand.

In that case, you really do have to wonder why NZR doesn't do away with the Super sides entirely and simply release the best players back to their provinces and make the Mitre 10 Cup meaningful again.

Rugby competitions - particularly ones that are actually competitive - are going to be in short supply the world over.

And if the only place to watch Beauden Barrett and Ardie Savea and Richie Mo'unga and Damian McKenzie is in the Mitre 10 Cup then that's what rugby fans will do, be they in Balclutha, Bloemfontein or Bath.

If NZR really want to regenerate and invigorate a competition, then let it be our domestic provincial one.

Not just roll out the same old Aussie battlers or cobble together teams of expats and misfits, as was the case with the Sunwolves.

Sadly, it sounds like some kind of remodelled Super 10 is what we'll get instead.

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