Last night I went to a rugby match. The Blues were hosting the Hurricanes, and the night was a very long one for the visitors. Everything that could have gone wrong did. They were outplayed at the breakdown, their backs lacked penetration, their kicking was sloppy, and when they finally scored a try it was disallowed as a Blues player had stepped out before the crucial turnover. It was, in short, an absolute and painful drubbing.
As a neutral supporter, the experience was fairly dull. Sure, the Blues unleashed some creative and exciting moves to score tries, but there are few things in sport more boring than a whitewash. The last half hour was a predictable grind, as the Blues simply defended their lead and let the clock run down. People began to vote with their feet at about the 70 minute mark, given the game was effectively over many took the opportunity to beat the rush on trains and buses.
Their isn’t anything that anyone can do about one sided matches, they are a part of sport. The problem for a corporate competition like the Super 15 though is that it is based on spectacle, rather than provincial affiliation. There is no spectacle in matches where there is no contest. What would happen to such a competition with too many one sided matches? Would people start to whisper the phrase dreaded more than any other by the NZRU? “Too much rugby.”
The ITM Cup will never suffer this fate, as the competition is based on a completely different set of values. Rugby fans in Taranaki, in Southland, in Northland, in the Bay of Plenty, in Whanganui all have their own local team to cheer for. For supporters of ITM Cup teams, a hugely one sided win or loss isn’t a huge issue, it might be gratifying or disappointing respectively, but it won’t stop them supporting their team. For a competition based on geographic and community affiliation, there is nowhere else to go. It may be less lucrative for the NZRU in terms of TV and stadium revenue, but it is steady and provided it isn’t completely marginalised by administrators, it will always be supported in the provinces.
Support for Super 15 teams is more precarious, as people won’t go and see a boring spectacle. Fans left the Blues in droves during the unfortunate tenure of Pat Lam, as they had no interest in turning up week in, week out to see predictable thrashings. Perhaps that was more to do with constant losses, but the sense of the loss of spectacle would have been part of it. Given that it is a lot harder to muster tribal enthusiasm for Super 15 teams, why should neutral supporters bother watching games that are only going to end one way?