'Future hangs on last S14'
Wellington - Southern hemisphere rugby administrators are looking to this year's Super 14 tournament to provide a much-needed turnaround in television audience share and fan disillusionment.
Complex rules which have produced games dominated by kicking and a schedule padded with matches of little importance have combined to alienate fans, leaving stadiums partly empty and television audiences at record lows.
Though slow to react, administrators have now acknowledged rugby has lost support because of the poor quality of games and are looking to the Super 14 - traditionally played in an entertaining style - to lure back jaded fans.
Super 14 officials are working with referees to address acknowledged "problem areas" in the game - principally the tackled ball, the scrum and offside play at kick returns - which impede continuity, inhibit attack or yield an advantage to defensive teams.
The same officials have added some spice to open the season this weekend - mostly a feast of local derbies. Auckland hosts Wellington, the Brumbies travel to Perth to play the Force and the Cheetahs and Lions play in Bloemfontein, South Africa on Friday.
On Saturday, Crusaders hosts Highlanders at Christchurch, the Reds and Waratahs play their annual grudge match at Brisbane and the Lions play the Stormers in Johannesburg. New Zealand side Chiefs plays the Sharks in Durban, South Africa in the only match not featuring domestic sides.
New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew said at the 2010 tournament launch in Auckland that rugby had to deliver matches of the quality fans expect.
"We sat down at review time last year, referees, coaches, leading players and administrators, and all agreed we needed to put some effort into it," Tew said.
"We weren't providing, either for TV or live fans, the spectacle we have in the past. I think we've certainly made a very serious attempt at responding to feedback and our own observations. Time will tell whether we're effective or not, but it won't be for want of trying."
Tew suggested it was possible deliver a better spectacle without a further, intrusive and potentially confusing revision of rugby's laws.
"There were some games in the 2009 season that were just outstanding played by the same players, with the same referees and the same laws," he said. "There were others that clearly weren't.
"Part of it is attitudinal change, part of it is making sure we get some consistency from the referees and part of it is making sure the feedback to referees, coaches and teams was consistent and immediate."
Much hinges on rugby's ability this season to address its shortcomings and to win back a loyal audience during a period of change. The sport is about to sign another of the broadcasting rights deals which have underpinned professionalism since 1995 and a falling television audience weakens the hand of its negotiators.
"We're not blind to the fact there's been a decline (in support), particularly in New Zealand and Australia," Tew said.
"We haven't got to the point yet where can announce a (new) broadcast deal, but certainly the indicators from the broadcasters are they've still got complete faith in what this can do for their platforms."
ARU chief executive John O'Neill echoed Tew's comments, saying the expansion of the tournament to 15 teams in 2011 made 2010 a critical year for the competition.
The addition of a Melbourne-based team next year will greatly increase the number of matches played in the Super 15 at a time when spectators are turning away, deterred not only by the quality but the number of games.
"2010 is a critical year to show that we've turned the corner," O'Neill said.
"So if we want to go into a brave new world in 2011, 2010's the year when the foundations will be laid."
South Africa's Bulls will defend their Super 14 title this season but South African rugby faces the challenge of retaining public attention as the nation builds towards the football World Cup finals in June.
Rugby has retained strong popularity in South Africa while flagging in New Zealand and Australia, but holding its place in public prominence in the World Cup year will be difficult.
Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have all qualified for the World Cup finals and that will provide a showcase for football which further challenges rugby's grip on its southern hemisphere audience.