Super Rugby needs the Pacific Islands

It was almost a year ago that the All Blacks made history when they played a test in Apia for the first time.

Today more history will be made when the Chiefs clash with the Crusaders in Suva in what will be the first Super Rugby game played in Fiji.                

Given the historical reluctance of major nations to play big matches in the Pacific Islands, this is welcome progress.

But while these one off fixtures suggest a new era of inclusion, they do more to highlight the continued exclusion of the Pacific Islands.

Occasionally the Pacific Islands are invited to sit down, but they don't have a seat at the table.

The impression is still strong that they should be grateful for anything they get and that Sanzaar executives are looking to stick a flag in just about every far flung territory other than Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

It's the same old reason why - there isn't commercial return to be had from setting up shop in the Islands.

The individual nations have tiny populations and economies and therefore virtually no broadcast audience or corporate support.

And in Sanzaar's world viability assessment seems to begin and end with the commercial rather than playing prospects of a new territory. The glaring fault with the current Super Rugby set up, one that executives from the various member nations don't seem to be able to appreciate, is that they have created a tournament that looks great on a spreadsheet and nowhere else.

Expansion has been driven by the increased money it has brought and then justified by the excellence produced by the New Zealand teams.

It's an increasingly difficult argument to make stick, given that six of the seven bottom clubs are expansion teams and one of those, the Western Force, has gone bust.

For every epic contest between the likes of the Highlanders and Crusaders, there are at least three, if not four, duds between the likes of the Cheetahs and Rebels.

The equation is all wrong and the competition is crying out for rugby not corporate champions. Cue the Islands.

If expansion has only just begun the way the executives insist, then Super Rugby can't open its doors to yet more teams whose only benefit to being involved will be to entice yet more broadcast and sponsorship dollars.

At some stage Super Rugby will collapse upon itself if the balance of genuine contenders to obviously hopeless shifts any further towards the latter. Proper rugby heroes need to be found and the Islands are brimming with them.

If the competition is going to welcome yet more new teams in the years to come, then they need to inject flair, brutality and unpredictability. They need to be capable of knocking over the best teams, challenge for playoff spots and hold the interest of a global audience.

Basing a composite team in the Islands - splitting its home fixtures between Apia and Suva - ticks all the boxes. And there can't be any question now that both Samoa and Fiji have shown they have the infrastructure and ability to host teams and big games.

There would be an immediate, direct, negative financial impact for Sanzaar as set up costs would be moderately high.

But longer term, there would likely be major indirect benefits that drive greater revenue.

A competition that includes the best players from the Pacific region in one highly competitive team has surely got greater value to broadcasters than one that has a huge geographic footprint but maybe only three or four potential winners?


Photo: Crusaders/Facebook. Crusaders end their final training session in Suva