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Super Rugby’s beginnings show the shake up that’s needed for the game’s future

For as the principal ammunition used in this war was money, it meant that the only way rugby union in Australia could survive the ravages of both sides of the league war taking all of the best Wallabies, was for union to go professional itself. What rugby union needed was a professional competition to sell to Murdoch and this saw the CEOs of the NSW, Queensland and Australian rugby unions David Moffett, Terry Doyle and Bruce Hayman sitting in an office at Ballymore for three days in late April to build the “Super 12” from its foundations. Five teams from New Zealand, four from South Africa and three from Australia was reasonably obvious, a reflection of the numbers of players from each country and the number of television markets the “product” could be sold back into. They further worked out the rough windows in which the competition could be held from early March to late May and how that would fit with international competition. With minor overlapping, the schedule also allowed for South Africa’s Currie Cup and New Zealand’s National Provincial Championship to be played out in full. By 20 June the three member international unions had signed off on it, and it was ready to be presented to Murdoch’s main man for such a sporting product, Sam Chisholm. The meeting took place in his London apartment and Chisholm was so impressed they did the deal on the spot. His lawyer, Bruce McWilliam, drew up the contract on the dining room table, promising the newly formed SANZAR – South Africa, New Zealand and Australian Rugby – $US555million for 10 years for the television rights to Super 12 and a Tri Nations series. On behalf of SANZAR, the chair of the South African Rugby Union, Louis Luyt, signed it. The mood was optimistic for rugby’s professional future, and in the first instance they were right!

Jonah Lomu during the first season of Super 12 in 1996.

Jonah Lomu during the first season of Super 12 in 1996.Credit:Archive

The rugby played in the first six or seven years was gripping and the turnstiles kept whirring about like a ceiling fan in a Queensland summer, even as the ratings slowly dropped. And we all know what happened next. Someone turned the bloody fans off, and the game became stultifying. Yes, the exception was the 2014 Waratahs, coached by Michael Cheika, who played some of the best and most thrilling rugby anyone has ever seen. But for the rest, Super Rugby lost the mob. The professional game as we know it has collapsed, partly through coronavirus, and partly through lack of interest. I don’t know who the Waratahs played at the beginning of the year, neither do you – and I wouldn’t be altogether amazed if they didn’t either. A robust competition that everyone was gripped by might have withstood the plague, but when the pox descended on their house the roof simply caved in, crashing through rotten beams.

And so – even as we speak – the rugby wise-heads are building again, trying to come up with a model that they can once more take to television, either Rampagin’ Rupert or another that will firstly capture their interest enough to pay to broadcast it, and then – ideally – make us tune in with such enthusiasm that the game will be back on deck.

So what do you think?

What do you want to see in a new Super comp? Last week we discussed rule changes and just about everyone agrees that the game needs to be sped up. It needs fewer damn penalty kicks, fewer collapsed scrums, fewer fearless charges taking the ball forward five centimetres at a time – less a game of collision and more a game of evasion. Got all that.

It's time for Super Rugby to recapture some of what made it great in the first place.

It’s time for Super Rugby to recapture some of what made it great in the first place.Credit:Getty

But what do you want to see in terms of the structure of the comp?

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I am happy to say goodbye to South African teams. I can get interested in the Waratahs playing the Crusaders and Chiefs, but the chances of staying up late to see them take on the Lions or whatever the other South African teams are called are zero. I think the season should be a lot shorter – held over three or four months only, not five or six. I would possibly add a Japanese team, but only if there were reasonable expectations that they could capture the previous magic of the Cherry Blossoms national team in the last two World Cups. They would need to be competitive. And I would look at the possibility of getting a combined Pacific Islands team, on the same model as the West Indies cricket team – with the best players of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa playing in the one side.

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