WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The 2018 Super Rugby season will test the concept that less is more, demonstrating whether a tournament pared back from 18 to 15 teams will become stronger to win back jaded fans.
After years of uncoordinated growth in which the southern hemisphere competition expand into five nations and became unwieldy, tournament organizer SANZAAR hopes the decision to jettison two teams from South Africa and one from Australia will bring balance and lift the quality of games.
Ambitious plans for expansion into new markets had been developed before SANZAAR applied the brakes and admitted rapid growth had weakened the tournament. The need to accommodate a large competition within a confined playing window meant the tournament's scheduling and format were compromised and its credibility undermined.
SANZAAR has now sought to establish a fairer and more balanced competition by reducing the tournament to 15 teams and re-establishing three five-team conferences.
"We believe 2018 will deliver a more competitive and compelling tournament with more unpredictable outcomes and with an expansive and entertaining brand of rugby that tests players and re-engages our many fans across the globe," SANZAAR chief executive Andy Marinos said. "With the hard decisions to restructure Super Rugby behind us, we can now look forward to a stronger tournament that promises to deliver the best versus the best."
Japan's Sunwolves and Argentina's Jaguares survived the cull of three teams, though both have under-performed since joining the tournament in 2015 when Super Rugby expanded from 15 to 18 teams. Australia and South Africa, instead, were forced to bear the brunt of the format changes: South Africa lost the Kings and Cheetahs who now play in Europe and Australia shut down the Perth-based Western Force to considerable local rancor.
The conclusion had already been drawn that Australia lacked the depth to maintain five teams and that South Africa hadn't the resources to retain six. Australia's teams, particularly, have been uncompetitive in recent seasons in a tournament dominated by New Zealand.
Australia hasn't won the tournament since Waratahs in 2014 nor South Africa since the Bulls in 2010. Even under a tournament format deliberately stacked against it, New Zealand has routinely had four teams in the playoffs and has won the title with four different teams — the Chiefs (twice), the Highlanders, Hurricanes and the Crusaders (for an eighth time) — in the last six years.
The need to cut local teams has caused immense pain in both Australia and South Africa, prompting legal challenges which divided local rugby communities. The 2018 season will now determine whether that pain has produced gain.
The performances of Australian teams last year, measured against the benchmark set by New Zealand, were the worst in its history. No Australian team beat a New Zealand rival in 26 attempts in 2017 and Australian rugby will be in dire straits if that disparity continues.
Players from the Force have been redistributed among Australia's four remaining teams, possibly increasing their depth. Many headed to the Melbourne Rebels who appear to have been strengthened. But many systemic problems remain in Australian rugby, including a lack of experienced coaches.
Waratahs and Wallabies captain Michael Hooper has warned "it's hard to say at this point in time" whether Australia's teams will be better than last year.
"You've still got to have coaches coaching the right things, the skills being up to the standard of Super Rugby," he said. "As far as I know, across the states, the teams are fit. From what I have seen, we're in good stead."
The 2018 season begins this weekend with two matches among South African conference teams, allowing for an early examination of their strength. The Stormers host the Jaguares in Cape Town and the Sharks travel to Johannesburg to play the Lions, both on Saturday.
The first full round takes place the following weekend.
While the Kiwi teams remain strong, the New Zealand conference is not without its problems. Young players are leaving New Zealand to play overseas at an increasing pace and the decision of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen to take top players out of Super Rugby for camps during the season has angered some coaches.
Top coaches are also leaving at pace: three Super Rugby-winning coaches have either quit New Zealand or will do so by the end of this season because of a lack of prospects for advancement at home.
However, the main test will be whether fans react to the new competition with anything other than indifference.