ONE WOULD think that SANZAR chief executive Greg Peters moonlights as a travel agent. At the time of this interview, he was about to fly to New Zealand, where he had been only just recently. He expects to fly to South Africa twice this year and perhaps a handful of times around Australia to see how the Super Rugby teams around the country are faring.
It's just an average day for Peters as he keeps an eye on the Super Rugby tournament, which spans over three countries.
The former Hurricanes boss was appointed as the first fulltime chief executive of SANZAR in November 2010 and describes the six-month period as being “whirlwind”.
“The last six months have been busy. We have established an office in Sydney and now have five fulltime staff on board,” Peters said.
“We set up our office in Sydney rather than in New Zealand or South Africa as we are in the middle of the territories. The SANZAR company was set up in Sydney from day one and this is where our lawyers and accountants are based.”
Prior to Peters coming on board, SANZAR responsibilities were shared amongst the territories. Each country held the responsibility for two years, but with the expansion of the competition, it evolved to the stage where an independent management needed to be formed.
Rugby union is seen as the number one sport in both South Africa and New Zealand but the code is fighting an endless battle in Australia to dominate over popular football codes such as rugby league and Australian Rules. Some would say that Sydney is one of the toughest sporting markets in the world, due to the high amount of sport played in the major city.
“Australia has been a challenge for the code, due to the high level of interest in other sports, but it is something that we are working on,” Peters said.
“This season has seen a change in the code though, with memberships jumping up by 20 percent and the Australian broadcaster FOX Sports having done a good job with their TV coverage.
“Crowd numbers have also been strong, particularly with the local derbies, which are proving to still be very popular with the fans. The format has proved its worth and we have the best players from those three countries.
“The goal is to increase the commercial value of the game, making it attractive. We aren't a money-making machine. Super Rugby is about developing players and providing the revenue to see the game grow.”
The Melbourne Rebels were introduced to the competition this year, which was met with some resistance, with Victoria being an AFL-strong state. But Peters said that the response to the team has been good and will continue to grow, though there will always be challenges from other codes.
“There are some strategic challenges for the Rebels, not just from rival codes but from the other Super Rugby teams in Australia. They have been a fantastic introduction to the competition though. Whilst most had written them off this season, they have surprisingly won a few games. They have done what we wanted to do with rugby fans in Victoria,” Peters said.
“The Rebels have some private investors who are on board, which has been a first for Super Rugby. Down the track it might come to private ownership of the teams, similar to Northern Hemisphere rugby.”
With the competition experiencing growth and in a healthy state, Peters sees no need to introduce Argentina or the Pacific Islands to the current 15-team model. Not yet anyway.
“Rugby fans will see the Argentinians play in the Four Nations competition next year,” he said.
“In terms of Super Rugby, we have an even number of teams in each country, so it's the perfect model. Having said that, never say never. We predict that the game will continue to grow and the future may include another territory.”
With rugby union competing against other sporting codes around the world, it has became a case of snaring fans from other sports in Australia, but Peters believe that the introduction of sevens rugby at the Olympics, starting from the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro will see increased interest in the game.
“The sevens product is good for the Olympics as they are short games with a high level of excitement,” he said.
“Being an Olympic sport will boost the profile not just for the game, but for the code as well. Also, with a sport where you can win a gold medal, it will see rugby turn into a global game.”
Over the past 5-10 years, a major talking point for rugby union has been the signing of rugby league players. It was once a rare sight and unheard of, but has become more common over the past years, particularly with the Wallabies where dual internationals Mat Rogers, Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuqiri switched codes and were in the national team together.
“There have been some successful cases. Coaches are always looking to add something new to the game, so rather than a new attack or defence move, it can now involve a new player, possibly from a rival code,” Peters said.
One player who has made a difference to the competition this year is former Canterbury Bulldogs player Sonny Bill Williams who linked up with the Crusaders in a bid to be an All Black. League fans opposed the move and abused him, whereas rugby union fans wondered if he would be any good for the game. After the Crusaders v Sharks clash, English newspapers not only wrote about the match, but most mentioned how powerful a player Sonny Bill is.
“Sonny Bill has class and most certainly has lifted the profile for the game. He has a level of excitement about him and newspapers in New Zealand are always writing about him,” Peters said.
With the series level, expect both teams to put it all on the line as they seek to win the deciding test in Sydney on Saturday night.