Sport

Originally published at The Roar.

Regardless of whether Japan or Singapore gets the final Super 18 franchise, it seems only those managing the TV rights will be happy with the outcome.

The players and the clubs themselves are last in the order of priority it seems, besides the audience who pay to watch them play.

The Argentinian and Asian sides in particular will be isolated in their own markets, both having to spend a huge amount of time on the road travelling to other continents. In Japan’s case, should they get the nod, they will have a number of ‘home’ games played 7-8 hours away in Singapore. This will take place against an equally travel-weary side from South Africa, hardly building excitement for a great contest.

As such this model seems to present the extra teams as ‘Made for TV’ only, with little incentive to develop interest in the game – while the fans likewise will need to complete a short diploma course to work out the logic of the draw. To summarise, the Africa conference will have eight teams and three finalists, and the Australasian group having ten teams and five finalists – as well as splits within each conference, added wildcards for the finals and more confusion.

This model is not good for rugby. Below is a proposed model which would aim for an immediate Super 20, eventually expanding to a Super 22 and finally a Super 24.

The principles used are as follows:
• Each team plays 16 games in the regular season;
• A “Global” conference is added to each of the Australian, New Zealand and South African groups;
• Conferences are organised geographically, aiming to maximise derbies;
• Finals will feature three rounds, starting with quarter-finalists made up of four conference winners and the next four best performers as wildcards.

Each expansion could be timed at a four year interval, coinciding with each Olympic cycle as inclusion aims to develop the global game, perhaps starting in 2018 ahead of the Japan Rugby World Cup in 2019, and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

Olympic-related development should in fact be the main driver of this expansion – growing exposure and interest leading to larger player pools, audiences, attendance and ultimately income, which in turn is ploughed back into the sport to fund the next level.

Conferences (Super 20)
– AUSTRALIA: Reds / Waratahs / Brumbies / Force / Rebels
– NZ: Blues / Chiefs / Hurricanes / Crusaders / Highlanders
– SOUTH AFRICA: Bulls / Sharks / Cheetahs / Kings / Stormers / Lions (*one South African team each year to play in Global conference)
– GLOBAL: Japan / USA 1 / Argentina 1 / Argentina 2

The first additional side added to the current Super 18 model is a second side from Argentina. One would be based in Buenos Aires (and possibly Rosario), the other in Tucuman, but aiming to represent the ‘rest of the country’ so that games could be played in Mendoza, Salta and other locations as appropriate.

The obvious attraction here is the creation of a local derby – city against country – cutting down travel and providing competition among the country’s best players. There would also be a host of additional professional places to either reduce the numbers heading to Europe, or give more opportunities to those staying.

The second side to be added would be based in the US, with the intent of creating a foothold in the North American market to build on recent visits – and increasing crowds – by European sides such as Ireland and Scotland.

While they would be somewhat isolated geographically, a connection to Los Angeles could ease the logistics of getting to Japan, Argentina and across the Pacific, leaving only South Africa as a hellish road-trip.

Taking the new team to places such as Denver, Houston and Chicago would aim to springboard off the growing Olympic interest of Sevens, as well as University players and even athletes crossing over from NFL.

Each team would play:
• Eight matches within their own conference (home-and-away derbies);
• Five matches against their neighbouring conference (alternating a 3-2 home-and-away split each year);
• Three matches against a distant conference (again alternating home-and-away, with byes used to compensate for longer travel where needed).

The main logistical difficulty in this model is the sixth South African team, which per the above would need to play in the global conference, hence losing a handful of traditional derbies. To mitigate this issue, the sides would take turns as the odd team out, compensated by TV revenue which should increase as a result of the additional teams and time zone.

Finals should be a straightforward affair, with the four conference winners joined by the next best four teams across the competition, with the expectation (as Super Rugby now) that the stronger teams will still overcome a competitive conference with matches against weaker teams outside of it.

Quarter-finals, semis and the final should be seeded with the higher ranked team hosting each match as they do presently.

Conferences (Super 22)
Four years on, fledgling teams have gotten stronger and serious rivalries have started to develop within each conference.
– AUSTRALIA: Reds / Waratahs / Brumbies / Force / Rebels
– PACIFIC: Blues / Chiefs / Hurricanes / Crusaders / Highlanders / Pacific Islands
– SOUTH AFRICA: Bulls / Sharks / Cheetahs / Kings / Stormers / Lions
– GLOBAL: Japan / USA 1 / Argentina 1 / Argentina 2 / Canada 1

USA West is no longer an orphan, with a Canadians team being forged just up the coast in Vancouver, using the same reasoning of Olympic development and creating another rivalry. This would cement the USA versus Canada rivalry. Matches could also be played in Toronto as a starting point to generate another team once Super 24 becomes a possibility.

A Pacific Islands team joins a rebranded Pacific Conference, spread across Fiji, Samoa and Tonga with the possibility of home matches in Australia or New Zealand should travel be an issue for opposing teams – working on the presumption that expat communities will ensure a robust, enthusiastic crowd regardless.

Each team would play, depending on the size of their conference:
• Eight or ten matches within their own conference (home-and-away derbies);
• Five or six matches against their neighbouring conference, depending on its size;
• One or two matches against a distant conference.

While the format becomes slightly uneven, a clear upside is that the South African sides regain all of their derbies, and likewise the Pacific Islands cuts down on travel by being aligned with near neighbours New Zealand.

Finals follow the same format as for the Super 20 model.

Conferences (Super 24)
The model continues to grow, attendance and TV audiences continue to rise. Are we ready to conquer the Americas and create a truly global game?

– AUSTRALIA: Reds / Waratahs / Brumbies / Force / Rebels / Japan
– PACIFIC: Blues / Chiefs / Hurricanes / Crusaders / Highlanders / Pacific Islands
– SOUTH AFRICA: Bulls / Sharks / Cheetahs / Kings / Stormers / Lions
– GLOBAL: USA 1 / USA 2 / Argentina 1 / Argentina 2 / Canada 1 / Canada 2 or USA 3

As the game continues to grow in North America, two extra teams are added so that Global conference becomes the Americas conference – one in the US, the other in Canada or perhaps a third US team should it be a better commercial option. Either way, rugby should now have a strong set of teams with an Americas ‘identity’ and style developing to contrast against those of the Southern Hemisphere.

Japan cuts travel across the Pacific Ocean and moves to the Australian conference, with the years of competition having made it competitive and marketable as Asia’s team.

With four neat groups of six, organisation becomes simpler for all teams, with less travel:
• Ten (10) matches within their own conference (home-and-away derbies)
• Six (6) matches against their neighbouring conference
• Distant conferences played only in finals

Finals again follow the same format as Super 20 and Super 22, but with a slightly different flavour as each team represents their conference as either a country or continent, with all the pride that that entails.

Ultimate success for the concept would no doubt involve an Americas team lifting the trophy at season’s end.

International impact
As teams get stronger in each region or province, in turn this should increase the player pool available to each country, with experience and exposure making them more competitive at a national level in around 10-15 years.

Ideally the present four teams in the Rugby Championship could expand to 7-10 teams, necessitating either a separate tournament or a system of promotion and relegation between divisions. Europe would see a similar transformation, with second and third tier nations such as Georgia, Romania and Portugal stepping up through greater exposure in Sevens and gradual integration into European tournaments such as the Heineken Cup.

So in the 2035 Rugby World Cup and beyond, there should be a lot more teams with at least a puncher’s chance of taking the trophy off the All Blacks.