Local derbies are the lifeblood of Super Rugby
February 24, 2014
Israel Folau soared above his rivals against Western Force at Allianz Staudium © Getty Images
Over the past week or so, we have discovered the Chiefs are not just a mighty attacking unit but a resourceful defensive outfit that can live off scraps, and the Queensland Reds haven't lost their mojo.
How did we find that out?
By watching Super Rugby derbies: contests that mean something, that have an edge, involve tribalism and intensity, and put Test players fighting for the same spots in each other's face; these are the matches in which you really discover whether someone is up to the pressure, is capable of making the next step to Test football, or is simply an imposter.
When SANZAR decided to change the Super Rugby format several years ago, for good reason they instituted more derbies - because that is what the punters want. They fans relate to derbies because they know everyone involved and do not have to search through a program to work out who exactly is this unknown South African, New Zealander or Australian with the unpronounceable name. Derbies mean something, promote debate, and act as the perfect trial for Test coaches.
We had two beauties in Australia over the weekend. The Reds and Brumbies had months to prepare for their head-to-head in Canberra on Saturday night - and the visitors won that battle of the minds 27-17. Numerous Brumbies Test possibilities floundered as the poise shown by the Wallabies' No.9-10 combination of Will Genia and Quade Cooper, plus the wise signing of Lachie Turner from New South Wales Waratahs showed there was life at the Reds after Ewen McKenzie.
The Waratahs made a stunning statement against the Force
Then, on Sunday, we learned as the Waratahs mauled a one-dimensional Western Force 43-21 in Sydney that Israel Folau has lost nothing during the off-season and that Jacques Potgieter is going to provide the Tahs with necessary up-front mongrel.
More of it.
Instead, we heard last week of the lunacy whereby New Zealand and South Africa are pushing for the abolition of derbies. They argue the leading Australian teams have an unfair advantage because they each play the less-competitive Melbourne Rebels and Force twice during the season. They are also complaining of the physicality and repetitiveness of derbies.
This is pathetic bleating of the lowest order. What do they want? An endless succession of games that through sheer boredom convinces the viewer to turn off? Don't they understand that pay television finances the tournament - and fans will walk away from the competition if it lacks an edge? What then? Back to an amateur game?
As mind-boggling is the relentless push by SANZAR for expansion. The latest whizz-bang idea is to involve 17 Super Rugby teams from 2016 - including one from Argentina and a sixth South African franchise.
So further dilution of the product, and an emphasis on quantity rather than quality. At a time when several franchises in Australia and South Africa are struggling, where is the logic of adding another from the Republic - especially when South Africa has provided the bottom team in 13 of the 18 years of the tournament? (Australian teams have finished last three times, New Zealand twice.)
The push also comes at a time when players are complaining of excess travel and overwhelming match schedules. So let's just make it that much harder by adding out-of-the-way Argentina to the itinerary. Sheer madness.
New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew told the Kiwi press on the weekend that it was easier to criticise than find a solution.
Well here is a solution. And it's very simple. It certainly doesn't require "think tanks", "feasibility studies" or the forming of big-noting executive committees.
Cut back the number of Super Rugby teams to 12 or 14. Don't cut back the number of derbies. If you want an audience, you must cater to that audience. Don't make the competition any more confusing. Don't make it weaker by adding more teams. First and foremost, the public likes derbies. So give them derbies.
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