Super Rugby founder give his thoughts on the competition and its future

In 1995, ARU CEO Bruce Hayman wrote a memo with the of help David Moffett and Terry Doyle. It was titled “The Perfect Rugby Product” and outlined a plan to take the game professional at a time when the ARL and Super League threatened the existence of the 15 man code.

From that memo, Super Rugby and SANZAR was born and SANZAR soon signed a 10-year $US550 million broadcast deal with Rupert Murdoch and News Corp, which took the game professional and secured its future.

Super Rugby has come a long way from its inaugural 12 team tournament back in 1996 and we caught up with Hayman to hear his thoughts on the current state of the competition and find out what he thinks about its future.

Where did the original idea for Super 12 and SANZAR come from? 

Rugby at that stage was still an amateur sport and in the wake of the Super League raid on the ARL, we quickly realised that we needed to do something to protect our players and keep them in the code. The original Super Rugby product, which started as Super 6 and became Super 10 hadn’t been put together by any of the governing bodies, it was actually put together by a travel agent in New Zealand. In those days, teams were split into different pools and the only time you played a side from another pool was in the semi finals. Basically, we decided that we needed to create a product ourselves, rather than wait for someone from outside of rugby to do it for us and that’s where the initial idea for the Super 12 competition and SANZAR came from.

In 1995, Phil Harry (ARU President) and I travelled to IRB HQ in Bristol to bid for the 1999 Rugby World Cup and as part of that presentation, we discussed the need for the game to go professional. Our proposition was that in going professional, we didn’t want to lose the ethos of the game, but we needed to be able to reward our players if were going to compete against Super League. New Zealand were also feeling the pressure because league clubs were starting to poach their players for Super League and South Africa had only just returned to the world of rugby, so they needed help to get back on their feet internationally. It was pretty clear that the three Southern Hemisphere IRB Foundation Members needed to work together to strengthen our platform against any objections from the Northern Hemisphere Unions. I do think that worked and has continued to work for quite some time.

At that point, were New Zealand and South Africa the obvious choices to partner with? 

The time zones had worked reasonably well in Super 10, so we knew it could work. We really didn’t know what we could get for the television rights but this happened at a time when pay per view television was flying right around the world and they were desperate for content so we thought if the three countries could put something together, we’d be able to go out and sell it. Murdoch was the obvious choice because Packer was locked in with the ARL and Murdoch was in the middle of his Super League experiment, so we thought if we could sell him on the global television rights, we might be onto something. At that point, Australia were the World Champions, South Africa had just returned to professional sport and New Zealand had Jonah Lomu so it was a pretty attractive package.

From an Australian perspective, we only had two teams (NSW & QLD) from which the Wallabies selectors could pick a squad and those two teams only played three games in Super 10, two games against one another and then two matches ahead of the inbound tours. That was the only time that the selectors had to watch our best players play against one another so we needed to increase our depth and the way to do that was to establish a third team, the ACT Brumbies.

The critical point in the original concept though was that it was absolutely vital that in an International Provincial Championship, every team had to play each other at least once. It had to be a fair competition. It also needed to be simple enough that fans could follow and support their team at all times.

How did New Zealand and South Africa initially react? 

I had to sell it to the ARU first and the board agreed that we needed to do it. We had been talking closely with New Zealand and South Africa at the time because Super League were trying to pinch players from all over and we all acknowledged that professionalism had to come into the game.

We all met in Newlands about 10 days before the opening match of the 1995 World Cup, so we had everyone in the same place at the same time. I presented my proposal which covered the World Cup, a three match Bledisloe Cup series, International inbound tours and the International Provincial Championship which eventually became known as Super Rugby. I disagreed with the name but that’s another story.

We suggested that we tie everything under our collective control in together and sell global television rights to the highest bidder. It was a little tough to convince the other countries at first but over the course of a few hours both New Zealand and South Africa came around to the idea and that became the first ever meeting of SANZAR.

New Zealand objected to Australia adding a third side initially but we held our ground. One of the New Zealand execs fought hard on that point and told me that Auckland would put at least 100 points on a team from Canberra. In March 1996 I watched the Brumbies play the Blues for the very first time at Eden Park and the Brumbies went on and beat them. Within 30 seconds of the final whistle, I had called that exec and reminded him of his comments and it was one of the more satisfying calls that I got to make.

I don’t think there was ever resistance from either country but I think they were wary. Eventually they realised that is was in all of our best interests and we went on and signed a 10-year $US550 million broadcast deal and Super Rugby was born.

Was there any thought or talk of eventual expansion at that point? 

We all eventually agreed that 12 teams, with five from New Zealand, four from South Africa and three from Australia was the right fit and the competition structure worked. One of the main points we made though was that every team had to play each other at least once or it just wouldn’t work.

The length of the season also allowed the top players to play Internationals and the less experienced players to return to their clubs and play club rugby. We didn’t want to lock the players away for 12 months of the year or create academies because it was our belief and it’s still my belief that the best academy you can have is “clubland”.

So the broadcast deal was essentially the catalyst for Super Rugby and SANZAR. 

We needed to protect and reward our players and the only way we could do that was create something to sell to the broadcasters. In 1994, we played our first ever Test match in prime time. Australia played New Zealand in a Bledisloe Cup match in Sydney and we played it at 7:30pm on a Wednesday night because we knew we’d have no competition. We rated 31 in Sydney, when we had been averaging 8 or 9 during our afternoon Tests, so that gave us a good indication of just how important TV was for the game. The SFS was full so the massive TV audience on a Wednesday night did not keep people away from the game.

When the next round of broadcast negotiations came around in 2006, SANZAR decided to expand the competition to Super 14. Did the administrators get lost in their pursuit for more dollars? 

I’m quite sure they did. I was never in favour of expanding the competition, especially if the expansion, from an Australian perspective, reduced the quality of our teams because we just didn’t have the depth. I also didn’t think the competition would work if it was split into pools because you lose the essence of the tournament. When that started to occur, I was fairly confident that there was going to be a reduction in interest and regrettably, I think that is what happened.

What was your reaction to the expansion into Japan and Argentina? 

I’m a great supporter of supporting Argentina and Japan and in 1995, my proposal to host the Rugby World Cup in 1999 actually included a pool to be played in Japan. We wanted to play two pools in Australia, one in New Zealand and one in Japan. If that had of happened, we would have been the first football code of any type to play a World Cup anywhere in Asia. We knew football was beginning to expand and we wanted to beat them to it because commercially it would have been huge. We knew we could pick up the telephone and call Toyota or Panasonic and the money would have been enormous.

I’m a great supporter of rugby in Japan and Argentina but I’m not sure if they should have been included in SANZAR and what was the Tri Nations. I think Argentina in particular should look to link more with their region and create a stronger Americas organisation and tournament. You only have to look at the Sevens to see how well USA and Canada are doing then you’ve got Uruguay who qualified for the World Cup the other day. Why can’t they create their own provincial competition and then you’ve three key regional blocs in Europe and the UK with the addition of South Africa, Australasia and the Americas all playing a provincial tournament within their own time zones.

The current SANZAAR broadcast deal ends in 2020. Is it time for Australia to reevaluate our interests and involvement?  

I think change is inevitable. When we formed SANZAR, it was the biggest change in rugby since 1908 and I think we managed our way through some pretty difficult periods there, including the raid on the game by the Ross Turnbull led World Rugby Corporation which was a great distraction and caused considerable ill feeling across all stakeholders. There were those who claimed WRC forced the game into the professional era and that is rubbish as we had completed the Murdoch deal well before WRC emerged. I’m sure that such reevaluation can be done again and there are far more intelligent people than me that will be able to do that. I think it’s essential that the whole thing is reviewed in a similar manner to the way we reviewed things in 1995. The context has changed now and there are a lot of questions around time zones and South Africa. South Africa may be better suited to play in a northern hemisphere provincial competition nowadays but I think it would be very sad to lose what was the Tri Nations. I think we need to hold onto that rivalry at an international level.

The original Super Rugby concept was based on creating a product for TV. With that in mind, is it time for Australia and New Zealand to play in a more time zone relevant Asia Pacific provincial tournament?

The potential in Asia from a broadcast perspective is huge and I think World Rugby should be pushing a lot of their dollars and resources into that region because there is huge opportunity for growth. I also think its crucial to nurture the pacific nations as well and an Asia Pacific based tournament may help with that.

What did you think about the decision to remove the Western Force? 

I definitely believe that it was the wrong decision to remove the Force. I think the best outcome would have been to merge the Melbourne Rebels and the ACT Brumbies. I really don’t think Australia is strong enough from a rugby perspective to have four provincial sides on the east coast of Australia and if you look at it, Melbourne and Canberra were a pretty good fit. Melbourne has a strong sporting community and huge commercial support and Canberra has the playing support so why couldn’t you out them together and play half the games in Canberra and half the games in Melbourne.

From the very start of Super Rugby, Australia has wanted to use the competition to increase our depth and interest in the sport and no one has done that better than the Western Force in my opinion.

What are your initial thoughts on Andrew Forrest’s IPRC tournament and could that potentially create the framework for an Asia Pacific tournament to replace Super Rugby? 

I’m not sure if it can replace Super Rugby but I certainly think it can become the Asian component of the tournament. If the Western Force can play a part in that, then that would be fantastic

I spoke with Andrew Forrest at the Barbarians lunch in October last year and I think his concept is fantastic, particularly if it can nurture the Asian rugby market. I sincerely hope that the ARU and Forrest both realise that they are far better off working together rather than against one another. He’s obviously a very successful businessman and I really hope the concept can get off the ground.

Raelene Castle jumped into your old seat as ARU CEO a few weeks ago. What advice would you offer her? 

I think it’s crucial that Raelene surrounds herself with some very smart rugby people in the early stages and I think she needs to spend a little bit of time trying to win back the hearts and minds of those who have become disengaged with the game. Communication will be the really big thing and I wish her all the best because we need someone to push the game in the right direction.