Super Round festival of rugby misses the mark in Melbourne

Australian and New Zealand rugby executives will have plenty to ponder following the inaugural Super Round in Melbourne after the event brought in average crowds, while those who did attend were left wanting more from the so-called festival of rugby.

Hosted at Melbourne's AAMI Park, in the centre of AFL-heartland, the Super Round was a venture owned by New Zealand Rugby, with the backing of Tourism Victoria. However, the decision to take it to a non-traditional rugby city had many fans scratching their heads.

While the city has a growing New Zealand-expat and Pasifika community, bringing in large crowds was always going to be an issue, especially on a long weekend halfway through the season. There was little promotion in the lead up, and once at the ground, apart from the action on the field, there was little buzz at the venue.

With just short halftime spectacles and nothing in-between games, there was little to keep fans engaged as they waited for the players to return to the field. Pre-match, there was little for fans to get excited about, with no activations outside the stadiums, no entertainment inside and no special 'Super Round' memorabilia to commemorate the occasion. It was far from a festival environment.

The lead-up to the event was far from perfect, either, with SANZAAR forced to reschedule the Super Round from Round 2 to Round 10, on ANZAC Day long weekend, while newcomers Moana Pasifika had their fourth match postponed after a COVID-19 outbreak in the Western Force camp.

While not much could be done about the forced reschedule, playing the event so deep in the season meant fans of losing sides had little incentive to travel, while a warmer climate would be much more inviting to the fans that made an appearance over the weekend.

What will have executives in Australia, and across the ditch, breathing a sigh of relief will be the spectacle that was played on the field. While the New Zealanders enjoyed dominance across four of the five matches, the Brumbies' win over the Highlanders meant it wasn't a whitewash for Australian sides. All other matches were high intensity, exciting clashes that had fans out of their seats on multiple occasions. The women's Super W final was an added bonus to the weekend with their inclusion adding another ferocious contest.

Even the TMO was kept relatively quiet across the weekend, only called upon in the Waratahs and Reds' losses on Friday and Saturday nights.

Importantly, players and coaches across the board were excited by the concept and were keen to see it as an annual event in the Super Rugby calendar.

"I think it's awesome. It's great to come here and watch every game in one place," Brumbies captain Nic White said after his team defeated the Highlanders. "You could take it to Brisbane, Sydney, Auckland, any of the big cities. Hopefully it sticks around and it moves around, I think it's great, like a festival of rugby, it's awesome. Hopefully it grows and gets better and better."

Hurricanes halfback TJ Perenara echoed White's sentiments.

"I think the NRL have done really well with the Magic Round with promoting it and making it a big event, and for us to be able to start it in Super Rugby is only going to be a good thing for the game," Perenara said.

"The more it happens, the more times we can have events like this, I think you'll see more crowds coming to it, you'll see more people enjoying it and seeing the experience of a whole weekend instead of just one game of footy. It brings more people to the game, it brings more fans to the game and for us as players the ability to mingle with the other teams is great.

Still, there will be plenty for New Zealand Rugby, Rugby Australia and SANZAAR to consider. With just over 30,000 people coming through the gates over the three days, less than half the stadium was full on both Saturday and Sunday, while Friday saw the worst crowd numbers with thousands of seats left vacant around the stadium.

Despite this, TEG, the organisation running the event, considered the weekend a success.

"It was fantastic to see supporters come out and celebrate the first-ever Super Round in Melbourne. To witness world class rugby in the same city for the first time for Super Rugby Pacific was special for all rugby fans," TEG CEO Geoff Jones said.

"As a collective group, TEG Sport, Rugby Australia, New Zealand Rugby and SANZAAR are really pleased with the three days of Super Round Melbourne. As an inaugural concept, we've welcomed fans through the gates across all three days to enjoy some exciting Super Rugby Pacific. The feedback we've received from all teams, players, and fans has been overwhelmingly positive."

While Tourism Victoria's inclusion means every New Zealand team receives a flat payment for moving their home game to Melbourne, the board will have to consider whether keeping the event in Melbourne is worthwhile, or whether the event is better suited in more rugby-dominant cities like Sydney, Brisbane, Auckland or Wellington.

Despite the mixed outcome of the weekend, the event must go ahead in the future, but New Zealand Rugby, Rugby Australia and SANZAAR will need to take several learnings into next year. Whether they take the event to a different city or not, they need to play the event earlier in the year and create a festival atmosphere around the venue if they want to succeed into the future.