Changes loom for Super 14

Super 14 rugby will be on the cusp of change when its fourth year begins on Friday, inflaming tension over audience share with summer sports at the height of their seasons.

When New Zealand’s Highlanders meet Australia’s Brumbies on Friday in the first of the 94 matches that stretch from summer through autumn to a final on May 30, Australia and New Zealand will meet simultaneously in a limited-overs cricket international in Brisbane.

South Africa and Australia will take the field in the first of three cricket Tests in Johannesburg on February 27 and in the same city three days later the Lions will meet the Bulls in one of the Super 14’s anticipated derbies. The Test will likely still be in progress when Australia’s Reds and South Africa’s Cheetahs play in Brisbane on March 1.

Overlap between summer and winter seasons is not new, but rugby’s increasing intrusion into summer has begun to test the Super 14’s pulling power and has led to calls for changes to its format and scheduling.

Sanzar, the organisation representing South Africa, New Zealand and Australia rugby unions, which runs the Super 14 and Tri Nations competitions, planned in the 2009 season to switch from a four-team to a six-team playoffs system.

Representatives of the three nations were unable to agree on the details of the system at a meeting in Cape Town in October, and the six-team format is on hold until 2010 at the earliest.

“These were major issues with major implications in the different markets and we could not reach a consensus on either issue,” Sanzar managing director Andy Marinos said at the time.

“We would all like to have gone to a six-team playoff series in 2009 and accepted that principle ... but we could not agree on the playoffs structure that was to be adopted.”

A six-team playoff would likely entail a greatly expanded season.

Australian Rugby Union chairperson John O’Neill, who endorses the format and additionally favours an expansion to 15 teams in 2010, said the tournament would likely increase in length from 15 weeks to between 24 and 26 weeks.

“You will see everyone play each other once and then the South African conference, the Australian conference and the New Zealand conference will all play each other,” he said.

Expansion of the tournament remains a hot agenda item, with pressure to include teams from the Pacific Islands, Japan and eventually North and South America.

Those steps would not only significantly prolong the season, but also likely challenge rugby’s current stand on player eligibility, which places a heavy emphasis on players playing within their own nations.

The lengthened season is already an issue.

International players engaged in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa’s end-of-year tours to Europe and Britain in 2008 have had only weeks to rest and recuperate before the Super 14 start.

All Blacks centre Conrad Smith, who will likely miss early matches because of a groin injury incurred last season, is one of a number of players questioning whether an expanded Super rugby season is sustainable.

“The length the seasons are now you will miss a few weeks anyway, if not through injury then just because you have to take a rest anyway at some stage,” he said on Wednesday.
“I don’t like it that way, but it’s just a reality of the season.

“We either have a shortened season and that upsets people because we have to get rid of some games somewhere, or else we have a season like we have now, where you have weeks where guys just aren’t able to play.”

The Super 14 faces pressure in 2009 to prove its popularity with television audiences. Sanzar sold the broadcasting rights to the Tri Nations and Super 14 to News Corporation and Supersport in a $323-million, five-year deal signed in 2006. That deal comes up for renegotiation from next year.

The 2006 deal represented a 16% increase over the initial News Corporation deal, which operated for 10 years from 1996 but, with tough economic times projected, striking a similarly advantageous agreement in 2011 will be increasingly difficult.—Sapa-AP

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