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Graham Jenkins
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Graham Jenkins is a former senior editor of ESPNscrum
Super Rugby
SANZAR chief talks up new-look Super Rugby
Graham Jenkins
February 16, 2011

SANZAR chief Greg Peters is confident that the re-vamped Super Rugby competition will be a big hit both on and off the field.

On the eve of the new southern hemisphere season, the recently-appointed Peters believes the new-look conference system and the increase in local derbies is the recipe for a thrilling competition and will have fans flocking through the turnstiles.

The expanded format will see 15 sides compete for the Super Rugby crown, with the Melbourne Rebels the latest addition to the mix. But the inclusion of a new team is only one of a series of major changes to the competition since the Bulls secured back-to-back titles with victory over the Stormers in last year's finale.

The conference format will see teams compete for domestic supremacy while at the same time vying for a place in an expanded finals series, which means more games and a rollercoaster ride of a season that will take us all the way through to July. The action kicks off this weekend and Peters is adamant that fans will be treated to a feast of top class rugby.

"All of our franchises across the three territories of Super Rugby have told us that the high-value games are the local derbies and the new competition structure has delivered that," Peters told ESPNscrum. "Those types of games are key to getting crowds back to the game in large numbers, especially in Australasia where attendances have been a little more of an issue than South Africa.

"The last round robin game of the Super 14 in 2010 was the Bulls v Stormers in Cape Town and that sold out six weeks in advance - an amazing feat - and if we can get to that standard across the competition it would be a fantastic achievement. So we're hoping that the nature of local derbies will deliver more excitement to the fans and to the players themselves, who like to test themselves against the best in their own country."

Peters, who was appointed as SANZAR boss in August last year but did not take up his post with the umbrella body until November, has also backed Super Rugby to build on the success of last year's competition and raise the bar in terms of the standard of rugby on show.

"The vast improvements we've seen in the last 18 months make the game a far more appealing spectacle for the fan and I think the players are enjoying the game a lot more too," he said. "The focus that SANZAR has put on the breakdown, the tackle ball situation and three or four of the other key things that referees have been watching has added to that spectacle and helped create the open running rugby we have seen recently as opposed to the aerial ping pong we had under the ELVs.

"There are probably a whole bunch of reasons why the fans may have not been engaging with the game but that was one. The spectacle was not quite what they had been used to or previously enjoyed. There were also some financial constraints with the global recession and some domestic issues that had led to some fans becoming disenchanted with the game. But now there is a real opportunity heading into a World Cup year with a longer competition format across a longer space of time that will deliver what fans are after."

Peters, the former chief executive of the Hurricanes and Wellington, is the first to take on the SANZAR role full time and the start of his tenure coincides with the start of a bumper new TV rights deal. The latest agreement, covering all competitions across South Africa, New Zealand and South Africa is valued at US$437 million - a 35% increase on the last five-year deal - and Peters is grateful for the faith shown by broadcasters.

"A big contributor to that is the South African market, which is a huge, integral part of those commercial deals," he acknowledged. "The broadcasters have a very positive view when it comes to Super Rugby and the new competition structure because it is delivering what they want. Now we have to get the people to the grounds which is the key challenge, especially in Australasia."

 
"The broadcasters have a very positive view when it comes to Super Rugby and the new competition structure because it is delivering what they want."
 

The issue of enticing new fans to the game and winning round those supporters turned off by the rugby served up in recent years is one at the forefront of Peters' mind.

His success on that front will rest heavily on the sport's ability to harness the appeal of big draws such as Wallabies and Reds playmaker Quade Cooper and the Crusaders' rising star Sonny Bill Williams. Both players have been subject to speculation regarding their long-term commitment to the 15-man code and Peters believes the sport must strive to keep hold of such talents.

"It's absolutely critical," he stressed. "A key goal for SANZAR and Super Rugby is to ensure the best players in the world are playing in the southern hemisphere. The vision for SANZAR is to own, develop and manage the most successful competitions in the world so that we can attract and keep those players here."

Peters' hopes of keeping the game's biggest names in the southern hemisphere took a blow this week with the news that Wallabies midfielder Matt Giteau will be joining Toulon in France next year but he remains confident that Australia has the playing resources to cope.

"There's always that concern because we want to retain those very good players," he said. "Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are developing a good depth in terms of talent and the Wallabies can already boast the likes of James O'Connor, Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale. It's not all about one or two players."

It is not just home-grown talent gracing the Super Rugby stage this season with England internationals Danny Cipriani and Michael Lipman and Wales back-row Gareth Delve among those now plying their trade in Australia with the Rebels. And Peters believes the door may be open for others to follow their lead.

"I think we are going to see some more of that with Argentina coming in and adding another dynamic to things," he said. "Some Argentinean players will no doubt decide they want to play Super Rugby as Juan Martin Hernandez did last season. Some of the franchises are starting to open their doors to northern hemisphere players a bit more and in New Zealand the last collective bargaining agreement allowed the franchises, with some constraints, to have two overseas players in each of their squads.

"There is certainly a move towards invigorating the competition and if that means bringing some outside talent in then it should be good for the competition."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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