After the latest New Zealand conference game between the Hurricanes and the Chiefs, questions have been raised. Another bitingly tough match, yet with a scattering of injuries and exhaustive efforts from each side. Chiefs head Colin Cooper asked “why should we play each other more than once?”
The please has been added, but the message is fact. There are more derby matches scheduled than intra-conference games. Of all the derby rugby matches in Super Rugby, the New Zealand (NZ) teams inter-conference matches are like no others. They are fierce, unflinching and as a result, causative.
Head coach of the Chiefs, Colin Cooper stated his views to Fairfax Media. “Back in the day we didn’t have these derbies,” he said; in reference to his coaching of the Hurricanes from 2003-2010. His views are that of an coach being asked to play eight test matches, that could create more harm than good.
“I think both camps have got stitches and bruised bodies around the place.”
Those tough matches can create a wave of new injuries that head coaches of all the five franchises may agree that there is a ’cause and affect’. Play matches this hard, so many times, and the injury count (and over familiarity) is bound to take an affect. So the plea from Cooper is legitimate.
Last Word on Rugby look at the pros and cons, of the Super Rugby scheduling policy.
Is Colin Cooper right? Fewer Super Rugby local derby matches
Among the most scheduled matches this weekend, the derby matches at times take the prime focus. From the Sharks facing the Bulls, to the NSW Waratahs meeting their old rivals, the Queensland Reds.
That latter match was an ‘heritage fixture’ that had both sides wearing kit that reflected the colours of the 1990’s. When the old battle of ‘state v state’ was a yearly game, it was one that divided family loyalty at times – it held the attention, due to its limited scheduling. Last night, the theme was relevant, but the interest much less.
And in NZ, local derby games were also a yearly tradition. Once a year, franchises would face-off in huge encounters. Back then, it was billed as an event. And something that Cooper is asking might be a ‘healthier option’ for NZ Rugby? “”I don’t know whether we need to be smashing each other like we are, and I think the people above need to probably have a look what’s happening.
“I think it’s just the attrition of playing each other twice. Playing once is enough,” was the clear point made by the Chiefs coach.
So ‘why must teams play each other twice?’
Two Games are better than One
From 2011, the system was altered to suit. To suit the fact that a conference based system was introduced. One which at the time, seemed innovative. It was fresh, and gave many fans more of what they had come to expect.
More inter-conference challenges especially, that at first was appetising. Over the last seven years it has seen many of the most admired games. Not only just in the NZ conference, but also in South Africa and Australia.
Popularity is one aspect of the change. The viewer numbers were in favour of holding former one off games more regularly. That fact slowly became more and more relevant, as the NZ franchises excited their audience, as other matches were less attended. The trend of watching offshore derby fixtures between inter-conference teams made sense. It also made money; when compared in the broadcast rights holders revenue.
The improved terms/increased revenues then saw an expansion period that invited teams from outside the three SANZAR nations. That included Argentina [a partner since 2016] and Japan. The new sides found it harder to integrate a workable home and away schedule, so the reliance on Australian and NZ local derby games appear to still be the most valuable games.
Tougher Derby Matches can bring revenue, but cause Headaches
The fans attending the local derby games is evidence of its popularity. 19,000 turned up to watch the Hurricanes defeat the Chiefs. Good numbers, who were attracted because of the derby-nature of the fixture.
With a long stoppage for the unfortunate Aidan Ross injury, that some might say that could happen in any game. It was as a result of the ‘hard nature of the game’ though, and examples of injury can be found.
Dominic Bird was injured in the Crusaders v Chiefs fixture, and is yet to return to play. Augustine Pulu left the field in the Blues v Chiefs fixture, and may only now be ready to be selected. Lima Sopoaga was injured in yet another derby fixture against the Chiefs. Countless other examples have occurred across eight seasons, including Richie McCaw breaking a thumb against the Blues.
Observers would state ‘the toughest matches’ will create an outcome where the teams play harder. They hit harder, tackle with more gusto because the opposition is that much more difficult to overcome. It is marketed like that too: footage of local derby games used much more to attract interest; rather than a game against a foreign opponent [Bulls or Sunwolves].
And in results terms, the Canes v Chiefs 25-13 scoreline was much closer than the following nights scoreline. On Saturday night, the Highlanders faced the Brumbies. A typically hard intra-conference game, but where the scoreline ended 43-17. A good sized audience piled into the Forsyth-Barr Stadium, but no doubt larger crowds turned up for the Crusaders or Blues derby games played in Dunedin.
So in terms of patronage, fans are now programmed to attend a local derby game as the ‘tougher fixture’. Be it true or not (in both skill or standings in Super Rugby) it has shown an affect of prioritizing derby matches over the past ‘play-everyone-once’ round-robin system. The same might apply in South Africa, but the crowd size was lower on Saturday when the Rebels faced the Jaguares, than for their local derby against the Brumbies in Week 4.
Are Local Derby matches past their use-by-date?
When asked, fans today give a variety of opinions. Some will look forward to their home derby game; with the away fixture welcomed by their rival’s fans. It is the game that can cause their side to either advance up the ladder – as the Hurricanes did on Friday.
Or, it can affect the standings. And a by-product can at times, be injury and lost places on the Super Rugby standings. Colin Cooper will feel both, after his side went down on Friday night.
However, the regularity of these games is now weakening their value in other ways.
The Waratahs victory was the sides eighth consecutive win against the Reds. It is now a constant, and while in years past, the ‘odd Reds win’ over the neighbour could be looked for, now….it is just a hope.
History of Derby Game losses could affect fan interest
The Auckland Blues may feel the same way. Their fans have endured a barren spell against fellow New Zealand sides. The Blues have not beaten any of their compatriots since the first round of the 2016 season.
And if emotive reasons such as ‘losing streaks’ do not carry a convincing argument, then in market terms, there is a glut of derby games. Miss this game, and fans know that there are seven more derby games to enjoy. That could breed contempt, where the emphasis given in years past, was one of expectation.
But in the cold light of 2018, those factors ‘affect’ is now taking its toll. That is in terms physically and in the challenge that a ‘once a year fixture’ once had. It is overkill, with familiarity that could soon lead to indifference.
Super Rugby are to soon announce longterm planning and a vision for the competition. With the errors made in expansion, and in the recognition of feedback from stakeholders – including coaches like Colin Cooper and commentators – it all had to be considered. Even if the value is high, with good viewership and tougher matches, has the local derby gone past its use-by-date.
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