Pre SANZAR: Super 6 and Super 10:
Before 1996, a number of transnational competitions involving regional and provincial rugby union teams had taken shape in the southern hemisphere. The earliest of these was the South Pacific Championship, which was launched in 1986 and continued until 1990.
After the demise of the South Pacific Championship, with no tournament played in 1991, the competition was relaunched as the Super 6 in 1992. The original Super 6 competition consisted of three provincial teams from New Zealand; Auckland, Canterbury, Wellington, along with two Australian state teams; Queensland and New South Wales, and also Fiji.
In 1993, the Super Six competition was revamped and expanded into the Super 10 tournament. With South Africa being readmitted into international sport following the dismantling of apartheid, there was an opportunity to launch an expanded competition which would also feature South Africa’s top provincial teams. The inaugural competition featured the following teams: Waikato, Auckland, Otago and North Harbour (New Zealand); Natal, Transvaal and Northern Transvaal (South Africa); Queensland and New South Wales (Australia), Western Samoa (Pacific Nations representative). The Super 10 was won by Transvaal (South Africa) in 1993, and by Queensland (Australia) in 1994 and 1995.
The official declaration of professionalism in rugby union in August 1995 led to a restructuring of the Super 10 competition. Following the success of the 1995 World Cup Australia, New Zealand and South Africa rugby boards formed SANZAR (South African, New Zealand and Australian Rugby) to administer an annual 12-team provincial/franchise based competition pitting regional teams from the three nations against each other. In addition it was decided to hold an annual Tri-Nations Test Series between the three countries. A significant reason for the development of the Super 12 was the threat to rugby union from rival football code rugby league: part of the business model for the Foxtel pay TV network in Australia was to attract subscribers by offering an exclusive product (such as rugby union) which could not be seen on free-to-air broadcast television. By setting up the Super 12, the Unions had a product that was in demand from viewers, enabling them to sell a 10 year contract for exclusive television rights to News Corp for US$555 million, giving them both coverage and financial support to kickstart the new competition.
With significant sponsorship, and rugby turning a professional sport in 1995, the Super 12 competition successfully kicked off in 1996 with five New Zealand franchises, four South African provinces and three domestic Australian teams competing. New Zealand’s dominance of the competition began in the first year when the Auckland Blues won the inaugural competition defeating South African side the Natal Sharks 45 – 21 in a home final. The Blues would repeat the success of 1996 beating Australian side the ACT Brumbies 23 – 7 in the 1997 final.
The Blues then reached their third successive final in 1998 but went down to fellow countrymen the Canterbury Crusaders 13 – 20. This would mark the beginning of the Crusaders’ three-year dominance as they went on to win the 1999 and 2000 finals over the Otago Highlanders and ACT Brumbies respectively. The 2001 season was the first in which no New Zealand franchise reached the final, being contested between the ACT Brumbies and Natal Sharks with the Brumbies convincing winners, with a 36 – 6 scoreline.
The Crusaders won their 4th final in 2002 winning all 11 matches and missed out on their 5th in 2003 with a four-point loss to fellow countrymen the Blues. In 2004 the Brumbies took revenge on their 2000 final loss to the Crusaders defeating them 47 – 38 in front of a home crowd. The Crusaders would bounce back to win the 2005 final 35 – 25 against the Australian side the New South Wales Waratahs who reached their first ever final. This was the last year of the 12 team format.
From the early 2000s Australia had started to push for the inclusion of a fourth Australian team, and South Africa for another team from its country. There was also speculation of including a team from the South Pacific Island nations, such as Fiji; or a combined Pacific Islanders team from Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga. Argentina was also pushing for inclusion in the Super 12. In the early 2000s the provincial names from the New Zealand franchises were dropped. So the Canterbury Crusaders become the simply The Crusaders. Also South Africa followed the New Zealand franchise model, where previously South African participation was decided by the previous year’s Currie Cup placings.
In September 2004, SANZAR began negotiations for a new television deal to take effect in 2006. That December, SANZAR announced that a new TV deal had been signed, with News Corporation winning the rights for the UK, Australia and New Zealand and Supersport winning rights for South Africa. The contract is worth USD 323 million over five years, which is a 16% annual increase compared to the previous deal. It covers international fixtures as well as the Super 14. SANZAR remained free to negotiate separate deals for other markets, such as France, Japan and the Americas.
The TriNations is the “cash cow” for the SANZAR partners as it provides nearly 60 per cent of the money from News Ltd. The Super 14 made up about 30 per cent of the deal.
Under the new deal, Australia and South Africa each got one extra team in the competition, and a third round of fixtures was added to the Tri Nations Series. The proposal also included the possibility of splitting the updated Super 14 into two seven-team divisions, but it was decided to keep the competition in its traditional single-table format. However, Argentina and the Pacific Islands remain shut out of the competition under this proposal.
It was confirmed in 2005 that the new Australian team in the competition would be based in Perth and was named the Western Force. The addition of the new South African team led to considerable controversy, including government involvement. Finally, the five teams for 2006 were confirmed to be the country’s existing four teams, plus the Central Cheetahs, which draws its players from the Free State and Northern Cape Provinces.
The two new teams didn’t perform all that well, the South African franchise the Cheetahs did the better of the two teams finishing 10th on the ladder notching up 5 season wins. The Australian franchise the Western Force only managed one victory and ended winning the wooden spoon as last placed 14th. The highlight for the Force was a 23-all draw against eventual champions the Crusaders, who defeated first-time finalists the Hurricanes 19 – 12.
For the 2007 season, 22 All Blacks missed the competition’s first seven rounds as part of an All Black “conditioning programme”. The conditioning programme was a part of the All Blacks’ 2007 Rugby World Cup preparations, and every New Zealand franchise was without players for the first seven rounds. At the end of the regular season, for the first time since 1998, no Australian franchise had made the semi-finals. Although the Brumbies were strong and the Western Force experienced vast improvement it was a poor season for the Queensland Reds and Waratahs who finished last and second last respectively. Also, it was known before the final that the competition would be won for the first time ever by a South African team, as the Sharks and Bulls, who finished 1–2 on the season ladder, both won their respective semifinals. The final, held in Durban, saw the visiting Bulls win 20–19.
Expansion to 15 teams
On 19 May 2009, following prolonged negotiations, SANZAR unveiled its model for an expanded season to start in 2011. This model was due to be presented to current broadcast rights holder News Corporation for approval before the end of June 2009. The new structure is based around the original ARU proposal for three national conferences, whereby each side would have played the other four teams from their own country twice and all of the other teams once, before a six team finals series. However, there were two major compromises that – while somewhat complicating the model – were designed to accommodate the wishes of all three countries. Firstly, each team would only play four of the five teams in each of the other two national conferences, meaning sixteen regular season games for each team. This ‘trimming’ of the model would allow for a late February start (somewhat placating the ARU and NZRU who wanted a March start), a three-week gap for the June test matches (favoured by the SARU) and an early August finish so as not to overlap new streamlined versions of New Zealand and South Africa’s domestic competitions. Secondly, the three conference winners and the three best performed of the remaining teams would qualify for a three-week finals series, with seedings deciding the match-ups. This system would be a hybrid of the conference-based qualification system favoured by the SARU and the ‘top six’ model favoured by the ARU and NZRU.
On 11 November 2009, SANZAR announced Melbourne will play in the expanded “Super Rugby” competition in 2011 after the Australian start-up franchise was given the nod ahead of South Africa’s Southern Kings. The licence was awarded to Victoria, Australia, and the team is named the Melbourne Rebels. Brian Waldron, former CEO of the NRL club the Melbourne Storm, was confirmed as the new CEO of the Rebels on 11 January 2010, but resigned on 23 April after a salary cap breach was uncovered at the Storm