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Rugby Australia Chairman speaks on leaving Super Rugby... Could this genuinely happen?

Written by Max Sharp.

Hamish McLennan, 56, is one of the most successful businessmen in Australia; he is the Chairman of the highly valued REA Group and the CEO of Network Ten, just to name a few of his business endeavours. The entrepreneur, in 2020 though, became a potent figure in the sporting landscape too, after he joined the board of Rugby Australia, later being named as Chairman.

David Pocock, Dean Mumm and Sekope Kepu set for a lineout against the All Blacks in 2016. Photo: Max Sharp.

Many people have come to rate Australia's Wallabies highly since the new decade began and though they are far away from the great team they once were, promising signs perhaps point to the Wallabies lifting the Rugby World Cup within the years to come. McLennan, as the Chairman of the Board, hired former Wales player Andy Marinos, as the CEO and Marinos' close work with Dave Rennie, the Wallabies' Head Coach, has allowed a revival to trickle down from test level and into clubs, to create more cohesion.

With the 2025 British and Irish Lions tour awaiting us, Rugby Australia also managed to secure hosting rights for both the Men's Rugby World Cup in 2027 and Women's Rugby World Cup in 2029. These three events will no doubt plant many bums in seats, inspiring the next generation of kids to take up rugby union; which in the 21st century, has ranked a very distant fourth for most popular winter sports, behind football, Australian Rules football and also, rugby league.

Though these here have all been good decisions, can we say the same about the potential withdrawal of Australia from Super Rugby? As controversial as this may be to say, yes. So let's talk about this claim.

Amateur Rugby Participation

In a 2016 survey by World Rugby, Australia was found to have 767 amateur clubs, but just 1669 registered female players. This was out of 86,952 total rugby players in Australia. As Australia's estimated population for 2016 was 24.19 million, meaning just 0.3% of Australia's population, was active in playing the sport.

New Zealand's 2016 participation numbers for the sport though, were wildly different. At the time, New Zealand did have just 600 clubs, but had 156,893 registered players - this was 3.3% of New Zealand's then-population of 4.714 million total.

The corporatisation of rugby in both nations, has not worked like in Europe, where the lavish lifestyles of players are made easy, due to sell-out games week-in-week out, despite extreme ticket prices. New Zealand and Australia are still very rural or town-centred nations, in which the average person needs to drive into the city, to watch a Super Rugby game.

All Blacks' Participation Outside of Super Rugby

Former All Black Bryn Evans, has recently turned out for the Havelock North Rugby Club in their Premier Mens' division, but this is the exception and not the rule. The ongoing lack of the All Blacks' presence in their local scenes, has pushed people away from the Bunnings NPC as the casual viewer does not want to see the journeymen, they want to see the superstars.

On a previous episode of the Rugby Rewind Podcast, hosted by Ben Affleck (from the Skinny Ad, not from Batman) and Toby Flatley, I joined the hosts as a guest, to talk about the 2006 Air New Zealand Cup Final.

Though it had, at the time, abandoned its competition name of the NPC, it did have 12 All Blacks participating in Wellington's match-day 22, while Waikato, their opponents, had 15 All Blacks in their match-day 22. FMG Stadium Waikato, the hosting stadium, was also just 800 people short of their 25,800 stadium capacity, for this final.

Now, contrast this 2006 final, to the 2020 finals. Hawke's Bay's McLean Park hosted the Championship final, with just 7500 attendees at the stadium with a capacity of 19,700. Eden Park then hosted the Premiership final, with a mere 13,131 attendees in the fortress with a 50,000-strong capacity. The Premiership finalists, Auckland and Tasman, each had just one All Black on the pitch as well, with Angus Ta'avao and David Havili captaining their respective provinces.

Australian crowds have not looked good lately at all either. In the southern hemisphere, there is a clear disconnect between the fans and their stadium attendance, while Super Rugby's on-air viewing is alleged to be declining too.

Abolition of Super Rugby

While ticket prices in New Zealand are reasonable, this does not seem to be a perception by the general public.

It has been a joy to see the participation of Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua too - their involvement with Super Rugby, is already seeing Samoa and Tonga select battle-hardened squads. South Africa, Argentina and Japan have now gone too, creating far fewer business expenditures for the Super Rugby teams in regards to travel. Should audiences come back to stadia, the profits will surge due to this.

Sky Stadium, Wellington, just minutes ahead of a Hurricanes fixture in 2022. Photo: Max Sharp.

The big question remains however, on if the lack of amateur rugby connection, to these Super Rugby franchises, is going to bring the fans back.

As seen in these pictures, both taken one minute before the kickoff of Chiefs fixtures in 2022, the crowds aren't often coming along, unless the Super Rugby playoffs are in their process.

Eden Park did indeed have a near-capacity crowd for the Super Rugby final this season, but many of the points I made in a one-year-old YouTube video, are all still valid.

Though this video I made was uploaded before the moniker of "The Black Jersey" had even been adopted, many of the pro-NPC talking points remain valid, unlike my delivery of these points in the video.

The return to a year-round NPC, would create far less attrition for older players, while up-and-comers have a far more likely chance at a black jersey due to the number of teams creating extra game time, for youthful athletes.

In regards to the anti-Super Rugby points too, the centralisation with six New Zealand-based teams, causes far more travel - players need to abandon their hometown amateur clubs, to move into the city, to fulfil their hopes of a black jersey.

A 2021 YouTube video, uploaded on The Black Jersey's channel.

In Super Rugby's Defence

Though I am on the record as being strongly pro-NPC, what alternative does Australia have themselves?

Australia's NRC did not work out at all and they have yet to establish a strong grassroots foundation since the end of John Eales' era, while as stated beforehand, lower player numbers mean they perhaps don't quite yet have the depth, to have their own version of the Bunnings NPC, that would hold up to a commercial audience.

The Wallabies, united as a team ahead of a test against the All Blacks in Westpac Stadium, Wellington, in 2016. Photo: Max Sharp.

Australia's defection from Super Rugby would also, be a devastating blow to Fiji (490 clubs), Samoa (140 clubs) and Tonga (82 clubs) and maybe even be the final nail in their coffin, with hopes of one day becoming tier one nations.

My own selfish need to see the All Blacks return to the high of 2011, that made me a rugby fan in the first place, has a gaping hole in the argument. Hamish McLennan, is mad, if he makes my pro-NPC argument a reality, because after all of the excellent decisions made by Rugby Australia under his leadership and that of Andy Marinos, this would likely undo the movement.

Australian teams get terrible crowd attendance. But when these crowds come along to smaller stadia, they look packed, vibrant and full of energy indeed. The awful attendances are slowly turning around in Australia, while Fiji, thanks to depth built by the Drua's presence in Super Rugby, are looking to head to 2023 with a strong rotate-able squad, that will almost definitely see them deliver the killing blow to Wayne Pivac's Wales and their World Cup hopes.

Would the continuation of Super Rugby fit New Zealand? No. But would it do so in the long-term? Yes. The current format will strengthen Australian teams even further, after a brilliant 2022, while Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, could at long last, punch above their weight to an even higher tier.

The future of southern hemisphere rugby does not lie in a globalist joke of a competition such as the United Rugby Championship, it lies in regionalisation that engages the grassroots, the working-class, the regular people.

So, will Australia leave Super Rugby? Probably not.

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