Starting today, there will be many anxious men watching TV to see how the rugby teams they follow religiously will perform. And we're not talking about the Bulls fans wondering whether their team can retain the Super 14 title, or the Stormers fans still betting on a dark horse, or even the Sharks believers who remain convinced their team has not reached its full potential.
Nope, those anxious men are the administrators of a sport that is desperately in need of TV viewers; many, many more of them. Despite attempts to fiddle with the already convoluted rules, adding more teams and increasing the “entertainment” value of rugby, it’s not all love and roses in the Super 14. The grand southern hemisphere experiment, that has been compared to a minor step down from Test rugby, is losing steam.
Of course, the rugby itself is good – well, mostly good – but the problem is the competition has been fiddled with beyond its own good.
First it was the Super 10, then it was expanded to the Super 12, which for 10 years was, in fact, good rugby. South African teams struggled, sure, but the quality of rugby was consistently good most weekends. The Sharks shone as the best SA side, in that new age of professionalism after the 1995 World Cup. But pressure from broadcasters saw the tournament morph four years ago into the Super 14, with an extra side each for South Africa and Australia.
And in 2011 it will become the Super 15 – with an additional Aussie side based in Melbourne, chosen over the Eastern Cape-based Southern Kings – and the tournament will enter a new format, aimed in part at minimising the extensive travel (particularly disadvantageous to SA teams), but will look not unlike yet another local round-robin event.
But what the Super 14 administrators do not understand is that more rugby doesn’t necessarily mean better rugby. Over the years, News Corporation has muscled Sanzar (the South Africa, New Zealand and Australia rugby governing body) into more onerous commitments, pushing players into playing more and more games.
As a result, more rugby has meant a dilution of quality, as the players’ bodies can sustain only so much, and, accordingly, less-interested fans. In Australia’s case it even meant dilution of player quality. The fourth side, the Western Force, has been anything but a force and the other three sides have looked poor. Now, the Melbourne Rebels will thin those scarce resources even more – to the point where they’re allowed 10 foreign players, up from the two that the other Ozzie teams are permitted.
Since the latest change, the Super 14 has been better for our teams, with the Bulls winning it twice and the Sharks made the semi-finals twice. But next year, it will be a hodgepodge of new organisation – a triumph of small-mindedness over common sense.
And here, we have to speak slowly because sports administrators are, well, sports administrators. Generally they’re there because they’ve managed to fight their way through the murky underworld of sports and politics and they’re often ex-sportsmen themselves. Which is to say, they’re often not able to rise above their petty squabbling and inability to see the bigger picture
To use comedian Trevor Noah’s analogy, it’s much like Oros when it’s poured out of the bottle. More and more glasses of Oros from the same bottle just mean weaker and weaker glasses of juice.
Should we say that even slower?
South Africa saw this with an expanded Currie Cup that featured all 14 unions and only reverted to strength-versus-strength a few years ago. Immediately fans flocked back to stadiums and the quality of rugby improved.
The reality is that in today’s rugby, the turkeys are running the slaughterhouse, in the words of one seasoned sports commentator, because in South African rugby all key decisions are made by the all-powerful presidents council. This body is made up, mostly, of the presidents of all the unions, including the smaller ones. The smaller ones are fighting for survival and generally put their own interests before that of the game as a whole – and the convoluted voting process allows for all manner of compromise. Not least of which was the choice of current Springbok coach Peter de Villiers, who an exasperated Oregan Hoskins was forced to acknowledge wasn’t entirely for “rugby reasons”.
Be that as it may, the games began today. In the first game of the tournament in Melbourne the Hurricanes came from behind to beat the Blues 34 – 20, while in a freak gym accident, SA referee Mark Lawrence was injured and had to withdraw from Saturday’s match between the Stormers and the Lions. His place will be taken by Marius Jonker.
In a show of remarkable sponsor diversity, the Vodacom Bulls play the Vodacom Cheetahs tonight in Bloemfontein, in the first match featuring local sides.
Let the games begin.
By Toby Shapshak
Shapshak is editor of Stuff magazine, but was twice sports editor of the Mail & Guardian.
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