Super rugby is (finally) getting interesting(ish)

This content first appeared in Sport Review newsletter number nineteen – if you’d like to receive articles like this and much more every Friday, you can sign up here

When Super Rugby arrived on the scene in 1996, it was brilliant. Colourful jerseys, mullets, cheerleaders. Even the word ‘franchise’ sounded exotic back then. 12 teams, everyone played everyone else, two semi finals and the whole thing took about three months. Fans were more interested in smoking a packet of durries before the match and going to an Exponents concert afterwards than loading up the credit card on replica jerseys at Rebel Sport.

But – no-one tinkers with a winning formula like rugby, and in 2018 we have a schedule that starts firmly in cricket season (the BLACKCAPS and England played a three Test-series during the 2018 Super Rugby season) and takes a three week break for a meaningless Test series to be played in June.

Teams from Argentina and Japan are included now, but overall, southern hemisphere rugby is going backwards faster than post-Joshua Tree U2, with former powerhouses Australia and South Africa nowhere near their 1990s form or organisational strength.

For New Zealand rugby fans, it means the same interminable local derbies week after week, with hard earned quarterfinal spots going off shore thanks to a complicated conference system that makes as much sense as those self-service machines in McDonalds.

Drivers for this mess are the desire to grow the game in new countries and the need to generate revenue, but we’re left with a competition solely geared to TV that leaves fans bloated and bored by the time it’s finished. 

It’s not *all* bad – the Chiefs and Hurricanes produced a fantastic match last Friday night, despite star players being out injured, and are set to do it again tonight. The playoffs, now they’re finally here, look tasty.

What’s the solution? For fans, I say don’t reward bad behaviour and vote with your wallet. Watch cricket in the summer, and don’t watch rugby until after the international break, when the matches start to mean something.

Let’s rip the game back from the administrators, referees and sponsors and bring back the Super 10, that ran for three seasons between 1993 and 1995. Four NZ teams, two Aussie, Three South African and a Pacific Island international team. Two round robins, one final. Simple. Let’s do this.

Auckland stadium power rankings

This content first appeared in Sport Review newsletter number eleven – if you’d like to receive articles like this and much more every Friday, you can sign up here

Auckland’s stadiums are like Stuff commenters – there are too many of them, and they’ve all got something wrong with them.

This week’s Auckland venue development strategy, handily summarised at sportsfreak.co.nz, confirmed that as ever, the sticking points are Eden Park, Mount Smart and Albany Stadium. There’s an argument for knocking at least two out of three over and starting again.

A waterfront rugby / league/ football / concerts stadium must happen, with a retractable roof and meaningful connection with the CBD. To help push things along, behold the Sport Review Auckland stadium power rankings:

#5 – Eden Park 
What’s it good for? Rugby, and history. It was fantastic for RWC 2011, but that relied on temporary seating being put in. The number two ground is lovely for second tier cricket, with the old stand and the service station over Sandringham Road to aim at.
What’s wrong with it: It’s basically the world’s largest Back Yard Cricket venue, and no-one turns up for Test matches despite best efforts to put on a show. It’s too far out of town and your transport options are highly variable. Residents permanently terrified of Otago students vomiting on the Q7. No concerts allowed.
Personal high point: Cricket World Cup 2015 v Australia and the semi final, Waikato winning the Ranfurly Shield in 1993.

#4 equal – Albany Stadium
What’s it good for? Has potential but needs lots of work. Why not embrace the Shore’s culture and make it Stadium South Africa, home base for visiting Super Rugby teams, with Braai?
What’s wrong with it: Frustratingly far away from the bus station. Could be an ideal NZ Football venue and high performance set up but needs to get a pro team of its own, which is a can of worms bigger than Dune.
Personal high point: I saw the Kingz there once.

#4 equal – Mount Smart
What’s it good for? Spiritual home of the Warriors, in spite of itself. Close-ish to public transport if you’re up for a bit of a walk or are into industrial areas.
What’s wrong with it: Tired, needs a lot of fixing up. Despite having roots in South Auckland, the owners are keen as beans to move into town. Where Carlaw Park was. Ahem.
Personal high point: Paul McCartney last year, Big Day Out ’94.

#3 – America’s Cup village 
What’s it good for? Drinking beer beside the Waitemata water while watching yachts. Simple pleasures. It’s right beside the Viaduct where it all started, and takes advantage of all the development since.
What’s wrong with it? Nothing so far – there’s a lot to do, but it’s going to be in Auckland, not Italy, which is a great start.
Personal high point: When we retain it.

#2 – Vector Area 
What’s it good for? It’s downtown, still pretty modern and great for netball, basketball and concerts.
What’s wrong with it? The trains go straight past it, meaning an awkward walk back from Britomart. Would be the ideal location for a waterfront stadium.
Personal high point: Luckily, courtside for the Breakers one time, Pixies Dolittle tour in ’10.

#1 – Western Springs, cricket venue 
What’s it good for? The boutique ground to rule them all. OK,  it doesn’t technically exist, but if we can build a venue that can handle 5 or 45k fans just as easily, with lights, green top pitch, craft beer and some kind of artisan meat snacks that can still handle big summer concerts, it’s going to be an absolute winner. Victoria Park would be even better but it’s hard to see this flying.
What’s wrong with it: Residents permanently terrified of Guns n Roses showing up in speedway cars to poo on their begonias.
Personal high point: U2’s Love Comes To Town show in 1989, it was ace.

Make rugby great again

This content first appeared in Sport Review newsletter number ten – if you’d like to receive articles like this and much more every Friday, you can sign up here

Rugby in 2018 is rubbish. Scrums that last longer than an Easter traffic jam. A Super Rugby comp that’s as organised as spaghetti. Justin Marshall.

But it used to be brilliant – we just need to bring back these top innovations from the past and everything will be sweet.

  1. Day time rugby. Playing under lights used to feel like the height of sophistication. We’re sick of that now. Day time games means a dry ball and running rugby, university students really enjoy getting drunk in the daylight and it’s heaps easier for mums and dads to take the kids without a meltdown.
  2. Angry coaches. Media training means you never see a decent blow up, walk out or swearing from a coach these days. We used to have an All Black coach called Grizz for goodness sake. Have some pride.
  3. Fighting. They say you can’t get away with dirty play anymore because of all the cameras, but I say just think of all those sweet YouTube views and get stuck in.
  4. Short back and sides. Remember when everyone got on Carlos Spencer’s case ‘cos he had a haircut? Now they’ve all bloody got them.
  5. Terry Wright. What with your ‘nutrition’ and ‘gym’, rugby’s no longer the game for all shapes and sizes. Bring back skinny guys, short arses and fat blokes, and make our national game relatable again.
  6. Tours. Three tests, and playing in the provinces. Seriously though, tours.
  7. Amateurism. Sure, everyone deserves to get paid, but wouldn’t it be better if Sam Whitelock always had time for a yarn at the butchers, Beauden Barrett delivered your Amazon packages and TJ Perenara was the kids’ PE teacher?
  8. Cotton rugby jerseys – jersey grabbing, and carrying twice your body weight in water when it rained added an exciting dynamic imo.
  9. On-field interviews with kids leaping around and pulling faces in the background.
  10. Australia. They were great, we should get those guys involved again.

Like playing in the highlights

This content first appeared in Sport Review newsletter number nine – if you’d like to receive articles like this and much more every Friday, you can sign up here

Watching sport online in 2018 is a bit of a minefield – sure there’s BeIN for football fans, or League Pass for the NBA and SKYGO, run by the national set-top box business. But nirvana, or being able to see that amazing shot / try / catch / tackle / goal on your Twitter / Instagram / Facebook as it happens is still a little way off for most sports.

Sure, you can usually track down someone who’s pointed their phone at their TV and hit record, but shouldn’t we be able to get a quality, not to mention legal, product these days?

Most sports would see this as cutting their own lunch, or be handcuffed by their broadcasting agreements that pay the bills – but not the NBA. In this fascinating interview with Commissioner Adam Silver, he outlines how fans using NBA clips to create their own content isn’t just allowed but encouraged:

We promote the posting of our highlights. The highlights are identified through YouTube’s software, and when ads are sold against them, we share in the revenue. We analogize our strategy to snacks versus meals. If we provide those snacks to our fans on a free basis, they’re still going to want to eat meals — which are our games. There is no substitute for the live game experience. We believe that greater fan engagement through social media helps drive television ratings.

In other words, if you create a YouTube clip of your favourite player picking their nose, you’re more likely to get a viral hit than a legal letter, because it all drives fans back towards live games on their TV’s.

That means accounts like House of Highlights or content like the Ringer’s NBA desktop not only exist with the league’s blessing but get huge engagement numbers. It’s mature and refreshing, and really, really successful for one of the most popular sports in the world.

Here’s a subjective selection of how other sports stack up:

  • I’ve watched more Indian Premier League on my computer and phone than the TV this year, thanks to the exhausting amount of video, from the seven minute match highlights reels to the stunning catches and sixes to the individual player highlights. The ICC does this really well at tournament time also
  • New Zealand Cricket send you highlights of the day’s play to your phone an hour or so after close of play, if you’re happy to give them your email address – it’s a simple concept but bloody handy if you’re at the beach or work. They also get highlight clips of the amazing moments on social media swiftly
  • The Premier League has some average video ‘content’ on their site, and some retro stuff – wouldn’t it be amazing if they made more of the clips from its history? The teams themselves have some limited highlights and content they’ve created themselves on their own sites
  • Rugby isn’t really in the game, as Elliott Smith pointed out in the Herald this week – and the NRL are leaving them in the dust. And Super Rugby really needs to fix their website for mobile, it’s a shocker
  • Other US sports like Baseball and the NFL have loads of high quality content available, fast

It’s not easy putting a model like the NBA’s in place, which requires not just the vision to accept fans taking control of your product, but either a great relationship with your broadcaster or complete control of your rights.

While most NZ sports well recognise the importance and value of video to create and reward fans, it’ll be interesting to see who’ll be the first to take it to the next, mature level.

Being there – Māori All Blacks v Lions, Rotorua stadium

This is an intriguing point of the tour – the Lions sent to a tough venue to  play a tough team a week out from the first Test. Which will be tough. You get the idea.

The misty, niggly rain that turned up a few hours from kick off, which had the Lions’ big pack licking their lips like they were being offered vinegar on their fish and chips and hurt the Māori ABs’ backline chances for razzle or dazzle.

Frankly, the home team were flat when the occasion called for a bit more. The bright spots of a stirring haka and home town hero Liam Messam’s try came early but there was little else to cheer about, despite some big hits going in late.

The Lions had all the control and their big strong runners and big long kickers won the territory battle comfortably.  Their first job is making sure they’re tough to beat and it’ll be the same next week. Can’t wait.

Off-field it was fantastic grass roots stuff, Rotorua’s big banks were often more entertaining than the game, with several punters forced to regret their choice of non-grip footwear. I bet we had more fun than all those Lions fans in the end-on segregated seating.

Cheika shits in All Black dressing room

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Cheika: Made pre-match grunt sculpture in AB toilet.

NEWSDESK: Eye gouging, refereeing criticism and boot throwing – you can now add a surreptitious pre-match steamer to the list.

Under-fire Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has been accused of defecating and creating an offensive odour  in the All Black dressing room before his team’s 29-9 defeat at Westpac Stadium on Saturday night.

Closed circuit TV confirms the Wallabies coach entered the opposition shed carrying that morning’s Dominion Post sport section under one arm, shortly before the cave painting was discovered.

Head coach Steve Hansen is playing the incident down. “The smell was worse than a dead possum in the boot, but we train for this kind of thing. The boys stuck to their processes and still got the result.

“We like to invite the opposition in for a beer after the match, but a spray and wipe like this certainly crosses a line. When Michael looks back at his decision making around dropping the kids off at the pool he’ll be disappointed.”

The IRB issued a statement expressing its disappointment in the inter-changing room floater, and reminded member countries to obey the usual home and away ablution protocols. The incident was being referred to the newly formed Bodily Function Sub-Committee, whose report is due mid-2019.

The incident is the first trans-Tasman turd since Michael Brial shat in Frank Bunce’s shoe at a 1996 Bledisloe post-match function.

Sad Monday

There are a few layers of disappointment in this week’s Chiefs situation.

It seems likely some of the team are dicks. Going from reports, the disrespect shown would be crap from a first XV, let alone a professional group. There weren’t many Chiefs calling out bad behaviour among themselves, according to reports, etc.

It turns out the organisation isn’t as well-led as we thought. Where were team management when this mad Monday (always a bad idea) was going on? At the very top, CEO Andrew Flexman hasn’t taken a lot of responsibility – it’s fair to wait until after the investigation before handing out final judgement, but where are the messages that  intimidating anyone is unacceptable for his team? The nit picking half apologies, wagon circling and complete lack of empathy for the victims  are unacceptable to me as a fan.

Now we’re questioning if this team, with our magical coach and lead by fine men like Liam Messam, Hika Elliott and the rest is smoke and mirrors. From the outside, it seemed our team culture was one of the strongest around, and the last few days have me questioning everything.

How does this get put right? It’d be fantastic to see some strong leadership from here on out, genuine contriteness and steps put in place to address what’s transpired with those affected. 

Up until Tuesday, the Chiefs were a wonderful and entertaining team I was proud to support and take my entire family along to enjoy. I’d really like to be able to wholeheartedly support my team again please.