Nine's Stan plan is on the rise but Waratahs sinking fast in Super Rugby AU | Bret Harris

All five franchises – especially the biggest in the land – must be competitive if the free-to-air experiment is to be successful

Super Rugby AU has made a promising start with new broadcast partner Nine at the weekend, but those behind the crucial free-to-air venture must surely be hoping the on-field performance picks up.

Anchored by polished presenter Nick McArdle, Nine’s coverage of Friday’s season opener between the NSW Waratahs and traditional rivals the Queensland Reds was on point. New commentary from former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, global household name David Campese and dual international Allana Ferguson made for a refreshing change.

Reports say 97,000 viewers watched the game played in Brisbane, up from 69,000 on last year’s corresponding game behind the paywall on previous broadcaster Fox Sports (though some estimates are as high as 150,000).

No numbers have been gleaned for coverage via streaming service Stan.

A viewership of 150,000 is solid, while not being outstanding, for Super Rugby’s first foray into free-to-air television. The primary concern for rugby and TV executives alike must be about the Waratahs, who lost by a record score of 41-7.

Much to the chagrin of the other teams, the vast majority of Super Rugby AU matches shown on Nine will feature the Waratahs and the Reds, a sound commercial decision given they play out of Australia’s two major rugby markets in Sydney and Brisbane respectively.

It was only one game, and the first of the season at that, but the five-team competition is a sprint, not a marathon, and sides must get out of the blocks quickly if they want to figure in the finals.

Apart from the opening minutes, the Waratahs looked way off the pace last Friday night. Among the pressing issues is the retention and recruitment of players.

When Cheika guided the Waratahs to their maiden title in 2014, one of his greatest strengths lay in his recruitment nous. A Cheika 2.0 would not go astray if the club are serious about assembling another winning team.

But part of the onus is also on RA to ensure the country’s biggest franchise is not its worst-performing team.

Brumbies and Western Force
The Brumbies beat the Western Force 27-11 at HBF Park. Photograph: Paul Kane/Getty Images

Unlike the NRL, Super Rugby AU teams operate under a “soft” salary cap – more of a guideline than enforced mechanism. RA must introduce a strictly policed salary cap to ensure an even playing field. If possible, RA top-ups to Super Rugby contracts should also be included in any such cap.

The Waratahs have been criticised for operating below the cap. Technically, the Reds are too, but they seem to have a lot of RA top-ups.

It is understandable to exercise prudence in uncertain times, but the Waratahs may have more reasons than one for wanting to remain financially viable. In the past, when Australian teams found themselves in financial difficulty, RA would bail them out, but RA is no longer the lender of last resort.

When the Western Force got into trouble a few years ago, RA effectively took over the Perth-based franchise, which allowed the governing body to cut the Force when the Super Rugby competition was reduced from 18 to 15 teams.

Are the Waratahs concerned about losing control of their franchise, or are they simply managing their finances responsibly? Either way, if they do not spend more – or spend more wisely – on players to create a winning team, their revenues may decline anyway.

None of that, of course, excuses the display against the Reds. Brisbane in February is sultry, yet the Waratahs appeared pre-determined to play a high-tempo, high-risk rugby in slippery conditions.

It was tactical naivety and errors more than anything that invited the Reds into the game. Conversely, the Reds played the conditions superbly, attacking the blindside with short passing and feasting on mistakes.

Injuries and suspension will make it difficult for the Waratahs to re-group. It may be unpalatable to Waratahs fans who love running rugby, but the team probably need to build their game around the kicking of five-eighth Will Harrison, who has plenty of points in him if his side plays for field position and takes all shots for penalty goal.

The Waratahs play the Brumbies in Canberra this Saturday night. The latter were characteristically clinical in their 25-17 defeat of an improved Force in Perth last Saturday and will be difficult – but not impossible – to beat.

It will be interesting to see if Nine can reproduce last Friday’s numbers. The Waratahs’ fare may have already turned off some supporters, and Canberra does not have the same level of viewership as Brisbane.

There was nothing wrong with Nine’s coverage, but all five Super Rugby AU franchises – especially the biggest provincial team in the land – must be competitive if the free-to-air experiment is to be successful.


Bret Harris

The GuardianTramp

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