Tackling Super Rugby's weighty issues
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: A new Super Rugby season kicks off on Thursday, with bosses pledging to tackle its unwieldy conference structure, exhausting travel schedules and lopsided contests.
There will be a first fixture in Samoa in June, meaning the 2017 Super Rugby season will now straddle 17 time zones and four continents.
The competition will retain the much-criticised four conference format, while tweaking kick-off times to trial Thursday matches and increase the number of afternoon games.
"Our biggest challenge is obviously the geographical expanse we've got to cover," said Andy Marinos, the Chief Executive of Super Rugby's governing body SANZAAR, while promising that team schedules would be managed better this year.
"We've had some key lessons learnt out of 2016 that we can implement into 2017 around how we manage the players during the week and how we work the travel schedule," he said.
The far-flung tournament has its critics, notably England's former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones, who bluntly observed last season: "Some of the games put me to sleep."
With six franchises in South Africa and five each in Australia and New Zealand, plus Japan's Sunwolves, and Argentina's Jaguares, organisers are wrestling with the conflicting interests of the five competing nations.
Each Super Rugby team plays 15 matches and has two byes in the 17-round regular season. The competition Final is on August 5 with a short mid-season break in June and July.
The teething problems of last year's expansion to 18 teams have forced a rethink with the heads of Australian, New Zealand, South African and Argentinian rugby convening in early March to finalise competition changes for 2018 after an urgent strategic review was announced by Marinos last month.
South Africa, with just three titles in the 21 seasons of Super Rugby, are mostly concerned about their arduous travel schedules.
Oregan Hoskins, who resigned as President of SA Rugby last August, stated South Africa would be better off aligning to European leagues rather than with SANZAAR, which would mean few time differences for their matches.
Alternatives to the confusing four-conference competition could include a return to 15 teams, with Australia dropping one team and South Africa cutting two.
New Zealand Rugby Chief Executive Steve Tew has called for patience as the problems are tackled.
"Long-term if the foundations are laid we may be able to expand the game in a way that's more sensible from a travel, player workload, cost and time zone point of view, but that's going to take some time," Tew said.
NZR's main problem is the guaranteed home advantage for the four conference winners after New Zealand teams occupied four of the top five places on the overall standings in 2016.
NZR are pushing instead for a straight top-eight play-off system which Tew argues would produce a fairer outcome. But the proposal is being opposed by Australia and South Africa.
"I'm stubborn and we'll keep plugging away because we think it makes much more sense," Tew said.
"It makes it a lot easier for the fans. They can almost disregard the complications of the conferences and just look at the log and say 'is my team in the top eight'."
Australia are not happy with the reduced number of money-spinning local derbies.
The Waratahs will only play their century-long rivals Queensland once this season and there is a solitary Waratahs-Brumbies match.
Super Rugby will further expand its boundaries when the Blues playing the Reds in Samoa in June while the Chiefs will take their game with the Crusaders to Fiji.
With 15 players of Samoan heritage in Blues squad, American Samoa-born Jerome Kaino said they were looking forward to it.
"The possibility of having a fixture in the islands every year is really special for us, but also for Samoa, Fiji, whatever nation it is because they offer so much to our game here in New Zealand and it's important that we give back," Kaino said.
The new season kicks off with the Melbourne Rebels playing Auckland at home on Thursday, while the Hurricanes open their title defence against the Sunwolves in Tokyo on Saturday.