Super Rugby: A history of change

SANZAAR has finally announced that Super Rugby will revert to 15 teams from 2018, with two South African teams and an Australian side to be axed.

The competition’s governing body said in a statement there was a need after a comprehensive assessment of the economic and sporting environment to adjust and strengthen Super Rugby in the short term to ensure a robust and sustainable tournament.

But how sustainable is it, and will these changes result in a better all round product and a more satisfied fan-base?

As history tells us, Super Rugby has been frequently tinkered with.

1992: Super 6

Before SANZAR was created and rugby became professional the first edition of Super Rugby succeeded the South Pacific Championship [SPC], which ran from 1986 through to 1990. The SPC featured six teams — three from New Zealand, two from Australia, one from Fiji — and was organised by the New South Wales Rugby Union in an attempt to compete against the threat of rugby league.

The competition collapsed in 1991 as the NSWRU fell on hard times, but was relaunched as the Super 6 in 1992 following from Australia’s success at the Rugby World Cup. The Queensland Reds were the only winners of the Super 6.

1993-95: Super 10

After the Wallabies and the All Blacks toured South Africa in 1992 and were satisfied with the dismantling of Apartheid, South African teams were welcomed to the party with local broadcaster Top Sport committing to a three-year deal. A fourth New Zealand team [based on provincial performances that year] was also included while the winner of the Pacific Tri-Nations between Fiji, Tonga and Samoa would also feature. Northern Transvaal won the inaugural Super 10 before Queensland won it back-to-back in 1994 and 1995.

1996-2005: Super 12

The 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa saw the sport turn professional, which led to another restructure of Super Rugby and the formation of SANZAR [South African New Zealand Australia Rugby]. With significant sponsorship and a massive broadcast deal to boot, Super 12 successfully launched the following year with the make-up of five New Zealand teams, four South African and three Australian. All 12 teams played each other in a round-robin format, with the top four going onto play knockout matches to decide a champion. The Canterbury Crusaders dominated the Super 12 era with five titles, while the Auckland Blues had three and the ACT Brumbies won twice. The South African sides changed in 1996-1997 before the Sharks, Stormers, Bulls and Cats were a regular stable from 1998 through to 2005.

2006-10: Super 14

A new five-year television deal was brokered, which saw Australia and South Africa awarded new teams while the Cats changed their name to the Lions. Western Force from Perth and the Cheetahs out of Bloemfontein joined the ranks, albeit with little success. A proposal was made to split the competition into two seven-team divisions, but SANZAR decided to keep its traditional format. The increase in teams mattered little for the Crusaders who won the first Super 14 title in 2006 and added another in 2008. But it was the Bulls who were the most successful side during this period with title wins in 2007, 2009 and 2010. Their 2007 triumph was the first time the final was contested between two South African sides.

2011-15: Super 15

Super Rugby became somewhat convoluted after more than a decade of a simple format, following the addition of a fifth Australian team: the Melbourne Rebels. The competition was now split into three national conferences from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Each team would face every side in their conference twice, while playing four of the five teams from the other respective conferences. The finals were expanded from four to six teams, with the winners of each conference accompanied by the three best remaining sides. The Reds returned to their glory days of the 90s with the inaugural crown in 2011, before the Chiefs won successive titles in 2012-13 in a period that saw the Southern Kings from Port Elizabeth replace the under-performing Lions for one season. The Waratahs and Highlanders won their first trophies in 2014 and 2015 as further change to the competition beckoned.

2016-17: Super Rugby (18)

As the sport began to grow its global appeal, SANZAR looked to new markets before their next television deal. Despite their lack of success in the Super 15 era, South Africa had the pulling power from a broadcasting revenue perspective to push for a sixth team to be added. It was announced in 2013 that the Southern Kings would have a permanent place in the competition having dipped their toes in the water that year, while in 2014 SANZAR confirmed a team from Argentina [Jaguares] and Japan [Sunwolves] would compete from 2016. The three new teams forced a change to the format once again, with the Kings, Jaguares and Sunwolves joining the five other South African sides in two ‘Africa Groups’. The New Zealand and Australian conferences also formed an Australasian Group. That made the finals picture even harder to follow, with eight of the 18 teams playing knock out rugby. The Hurricanes won their first Super title in the 18-team format last year.

2018: Super 15

After a month of quiet, SANZAAR announced on Sunday that Super Rugby would revert back to 15 teams with two sides from South Africa and one from Australia to be culled. Poor results suggest the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels are in the most danger of being the Australian team to be dropped from Australia, while the Southern Kings and Cheetahs face the scrap heap in Africa. The 2018 competition will ditch four groups and have three conferences with the Jaguares to remain in Africa and the Sunwolves to join Australia. Similar to the Super 15 model in 2011-15, each side will play all the teams in their conference twice, as well as games against four of the five teams from the other respective conferences. However the eight team finals series will remain in place.