User:Dhugo/Super Rugby - An Australian Context

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Super Rugby - An Australian Context Presented by De Villiers Hugo
The Eastern Stand of the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium (AAMI Park) looking from the souther or River End. Photo by Comes.amanuensis

The Super rugby have rapidly expanded in the professional era from the super 12 in 1996 to Super 15 now called Super Rugby in 2011. The format for the competition have been the same throughout the history of the tournament with a round robin set up, till 2011 when a new conference styled tournament was introduced. Business and political influences is largely responsible for the dramatic change. In an Australian sporting context it was a necessity for the ARU to gain a fifth franchise in the Melbourne Rebels after the successful establishment of Western Force in 2006, and furthermore the conference style tournament to improve local popularity and financial support through the six team playoff series.

Super Rugby and Australia

The Super Rugby competition is the largest professional Rugby Union tournament in the Southern hemisphere [1]. The competition consist of five teams from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia each, also known as SANZAR, and the professional era started back in 1996 as the Super 12. During this time it grew to the Super 14 and now is simply known as Super Rugby. Through this development the effects of business and political influences have shaped the tournament into what it is today.

In a broad spectrum the formation of SANZAR and its competitions was ideal for the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) and the South African Rugby Union (SARU) who both boast a well established domestic competition in the New Zealand Provincial Cup, now called the ITM Cup, and the Currie cup respectively. Both countries now use the system to filter the players through the ranks and into their national teams.

In an Australian Rugby Union (ARU) context it was a necessity as only local state competitions existed between small amateur clubs. The competitive sporting market in Australia has seen rugby being overshadowed by well established competitions by the NRL and AFL. For the ARU the formation of the Super rugby and on a bigger scale the Tri Nations have helped the code to not go missing in the Australian sporting arena.

The important factors in the new Super Rugby conference style tournament is how the ARU have manipulated it to increase their rugby program. Business and political issues are very prominent in the formation of the new competition and the ARU’s business and political views are vastly different to that of its partners.

Super Rugby - History

The super rugby competition officially started in 1996 as the Super 12, as twelve teams competed in the competition. Five teams from New Zealand, four from South Africa and three from Australia. The format for the competition have been the same right through from 1996 to 2010, with a round robin sorting out the top four who would go onto their respective semi finals according to the final standing. The top two qualifiers would each host a semi final, giving the top qualifier the right to host the final in their respective country. In this set up one of the three countries could host all the playoff games or none at all. This has largely been the case from 2006 to 2010, with Australia only hosting one semi final match in 2007.

In 2006 the Super 12 expanded into the Super 14, with Australia gaining one more team, the Western Force and South Africa’s Freestate Cheetahs also joining in. 2011 saw the competition grow with an addition of one more team, the Melbourne Rebels, giving all three nations five franchises each. From 2011 the format changed, with each country forming their own conference. Each team within a conference plays each other home and away. They then play four out of five teams from the other pools once. The Super Rugby finals also changed featuring six teams, the top teams in each conference plus the three next teams with the highest total number of points.

The new structure is based around the original ARU proposal for three national conferences, whereby each side would have played the other four teams from their own country twice and all of the other teams once, before a six team finals series [5]. However, there were two major compromises that – while somewhat complicating the model – were designed to accommodate the wishes of all three countries. Firstly, each team would only play four of the five teams in each of the other two national conferences, meaning sixteen regular season games for each team. This 'trimming' of the model would allow for a late February start (somewhat placating the ARU and NZRU who wanted a March start), a three week gap for the June test matches (favoured by SARU) and an early August finish so as not to overlap new streamlined versions of New Zealand and South Africa's domestic competitions. Secondly, the three conference winners and the following three best performed teams would qualify for a three week finals series, with seeding deciding the match-ups. This system would be a hybrid of the conference-based qualification system favoured by the SARU and the 'top six' model favoured by the ARU and NZRU [5].

Business of Rugby
SANZAR broadcasting deals. graph by Dhugo based on

Super Rugby is a big business, being broadcasted in over 41 countries and more than 10 million homes [3]. In 2007 SANZAR announced a media deal worth US$323 million over five years [2]. In that same year the ARU announced a loss of $4.7million due to the Australian Rugby Competition’s (ARC) one year stint, a copy of the ITM Cup and Currie cup [4]. The new conference style unveiled in 2009, increased Australia’s local derbies from six in the super 14 to 20 in 2011 [5]. This allows Australian rugby to create a ‘feeling’ of a local competition similar to that of SARU and NZRU’s domestic competition, without the actual financial constraints of an ARC. The purpose of this decision was solely business based, by increasing Australian local derbies to try and increase the popularity of rugby union and build supporter base [4].

Another business prospect of the new set up allows the top Australian side to host their respective final. This is a major bargaining chip to increase broadcasting revenue as Australia does not have a third tier competition to sell. SARU negotiated an increase of 46% revenue, and NZRU an increase of 13% revenue, due to their local competition. In contrast Australia negotiated a mere 7% increase in 2011, and is struggling financially because of the lack of local interest [6]. Melbourne Rebels were also the team awarded with the new super rugby franchise and was a major business development in Australian rugby. Melbourne being dominated by AFL and NRL, the inception of the Rebels helped spread the code of rugby union to the sporting rich area. This increased Australians revenue stream and also improved the sport’s popularity as it did in 2006 by establishing Perth’s, Western Force. Business wise it increased the chances of Australia resurrecting the failed ARC, through five well established franchises and support base.

The new three week playoff series introduced in 2011 proved to be a major success for the ARU. Australia’s Queensland Reds secured top spot in the standings and hosted a semi finals and finals with sold out crowds. The crowd figure for the Reds increased by 30% compared to 2010 and 60% compared to 2009 [7]. A major financial boost for the Queensland Reds and more importantly Australian rugby. Another problem with the previous playoff was the scheduling of these games. If an Australian franchise did not host a home semi-finals, and it was being broadcasted from South Africa the time difference became a major problem [1]. The live broadcasting of these games on Australian television would not be during “prime time” viewing. So the necessity to have playoff matches firstly in Australia, and secondly during prime time viewing was an important factor in increasing the popularity and ticketing sales.

Politics of Rugby

As in all sporting codes there is always the political climate to contend with. As SANZAR is the collective body for both the Super Rugby and Tri Nations, the concept of agreement is not so clear cut. The new proposed competition of the conference format was highly favoured by the ARU and NZRU were not against it. However, SARU were against this type of format for varies reasons. The main reason being that it would weaken the Currie Cup competition considerably, keeping the Super rugby players out of their respective provincial teams, and in effect most Springboks out as well. So therefore the politics that came with finalising this decision was very complex. For example, if SARU wanted to approve the format, it would have needed all the individual unions to agree to the matter.

The political development for Australian rugby to have such a format would allow them to mimic an ARC competition through the already established super rugby competition. This would prevent another disastrous ARC campaign like that of 2007. Gold Coast was another franchise bidding for the new super rugby spot. The reason for Melbourne being appointed the new franchise over gold coast was as much business as a political decision. Gold Coast situated in Queensland was deemed already a franchise in the Reds and would not have increased the reach of rugby in Australia. Therefore, the decision by the ARU to push for Melbourne was a very political resolution.


The financial climate in Australian rugby has been a big problem in recent times. Broadcasting rights revenue has only increased by 7% in 2010 from the previous year, which is very poor when compared to the other SANZAR partners. However, ARU have improved the popularity of rugby, firstly through the Western Force in 2006 and then the Melbourne Rebels in 2011. The development of five official franchises has increased the player’s pool for the ARU and has given new business opportunities for players and ARU alike. Political influences from ARU on SANZAR for the modified Super rugby format have increased Australia’s chance at recreating a successful ARC competition in the future through having an established support base. In an Australian context the new format has given rugby union a greater chance at growing the game in the sporting market and furthered the reach of rugby through the formation of professional franchises. This reach is aimed to increase support base and business opportunities for the struggling ARU. Now boasting five franchises and a definite playoff match, ARU has a chance to enhance their broadcasting rights and hopefully be more profitable in the near future.


  1. While, L., and Barone, L. (2007). Super 14 Rugby Fixture Scheduling Using a Multi-Objective Evolutionary Algorithm. Symposium on Computational Intelligence in Scheduling. Retrieved October 5, 2011, from,
  2. Jenkins ,P. (2004). Foxsports. “More for players in new SANZAR deal,” December 2004, URL:
  3. SANZAR. (2006). ARU. “SANZAR announces ABC Asia Pacific as broadcastpartner,” January 2006, URL:,40373.html/news/archive/section/21893
  4. Smith, W. (2009). The Australian. “Super rugby broadcast deal may refloat the lost ARC” January 2009, URL:
  5. Mareko, U. (2009). The Roar. “Melbourne super bid favoured by TV” October 2009, URL:
  6. Bryant, S. Green and Gold Rugby. (2009). “All that glitters is not gold in new SANZAR deal” December 2009, URL:
  7. Foxsports (2011). “Tickets snapped up in 45 minutes to Super Rugby final between Queensland Reds and Crusaders” July 2011, URL: