The current Super Rugby broadcasting deal runs out at the end of 2020 and one of the more eye-catching proposals put forth has been for a new franchise based in Hawaii.

A recent report out of New Zealand has suggested a consortium also interested in the Warriors NRL team plans to bring Super Rugby to America’s 50th state.

That certainly would be an exciting development, providing both the Pacific Islands and the US itself with direct involvement in the competition.

Perhaps the team could take on a distinctive Polynesian identity with a catchment area including Samoa and Tonga, which share a common cultural heritage with Hawaii.

Meanwhile, the team’s involvement in Super Rugby would open the door to the lucrative American television and sponsorship markets.

Honolulu has a greater population of almost one million and a football stadium with a 50,000 capacity – which has staged rugby games in the past.

There are daily flights between Auckland and Honolulu, of about eight-and-a-half hours’ duration, and only a two hour time difference (although Hawaii is a day behind). This would make it the perfect fit for the New Zealand conference in the event of expansion.

Super Rugby Expansion

The obvious question is will SANZAAR want to expand again after its most recent attempt proved unsuccessful? Many fans remain convinced the single round-robin format worked best.

It would be disappointing to see any further reduction of teams, however. The round-robin may have worked well but the game has got to grow, and locking down on a format with no scope for expansion would repeat the mistake of the 6 Nations, a highly successful championship but an exclusive one which has stifled the game’s development elsewhere.

Continued growth must happen, but with a great deal more caution than in the past. A strict criteria needs to be put in place and no more bullying tactics or horse-trading among the respective national unions.

Argentina should probably get a second franchise before long to help sustain its involvement in The Rugby Championship. The long-term aim might be an entire South American conference, perhaps with Uruguayan and/or Brazilian involvement – albeit a few decades away.

If the proposed Hawaiian team were included in the New Zealand conference, and a second South American franchise added to the South African conference, would it be necessary to also increase the Australian conference in order to keep things balanced? Probably not, and Australia has struggled to field four competitive teams, let alone five.

But, if so, the Fijian Drua could be a viable option, especially if withdrawn from Australia’s domestic competition to allow the same funding to go toward supporting the team in Super Rugby. Fiji was a founding member of the South Pacific Series, the forerunner to Super Rugby, after all.

Three Conferences of Six

Certainly, three conferences of six would be preferable to the convoluted model adopted for the 2016 and 2017 seasons, and could run with exactly the same play-off system as Super 15. Thus it might look something like the following:

  • New Zealand Conference: Crusaders, Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Highlanders, Hawaiian Islanders.
  • South African Conference: Bulls, Lions, Sharks, Stormers, Jaguares, Cordoba (Argentina).
  • Australian Conference: Waratahs, Reds, Brumbies, Rebels, Sunwolves, Fijian Drua.

Long Term

Returning briefly to the long-term future, we may eventually be looking at a complete separation along Pacific and Atlantic lines, the New Zealand and Australian conferences playing in one division, the South African and South American conferences in the other, with limited contact during the regular season, but all leading to a Super Bowl-like finale between the respective winners.

Geographical Names

Another matter which needs revisiting is the issue of geographical names. These should be reinstated for overseas tours to give the teams a proper identity. We can see what huge fan bases professional soccer and basketball teams have established all around the world. Pilgrimages to the home-towns of famous sports clubs have become an increasing tourism trend, in fact.

Super Rugby is attempting to break into the same markets, and would likely meet with more success if the teams revived their geographical names. The Blues, Lions, Sharks and Reds just aren’t going to mean much to anybody in America or China.

Author: Quentin Poulsen

I am a former New Zealand sports writer and founder of the Wellington American football competition, which ran from the 1990s until the 2010s. I traveled to Spain to teach at the turn of the century, and have been in Turkey since 2005. During the past several years I have taken a keen interest in third tier rugby, watching countless games via live streaming.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting article, Quentin. To my mind the biggest problem facing the Pacific Island teams is always going to be financial. Unless they can attract a major sponsor who wants their brand linked to Polynesian Rugby they will never be able to compete against the more developed nations.

    • Precisely why Honolulu seems like a good idea. Obviously they’re never going to be able to set up a team in Apia or Nuku, while Auckland already has a team. But Honolulu might just work. & the Polynesian identity would be its selling point. Hawaii has a football team and other sports franchises but they don’t have anything which uniquely reflects their distinctive culture. A team of Polynesians representing the state at rugby could do that, and do it in style.

  2. Interesting stuff Quentin. One other thing to factor in is that a professional rugby competition should kick off in South America in 2019. At the moment the word is that there will be 8 teams: 3 from Argentina, 2 from Uruguay, 2 from Brazil and 1 from Chile. This new South American pro league won’t initially be able to give the top Argentinian players the same standard of competition they can get in Super Rugby, but over time it would be interesting to see if they disband the Jaguares – dissolving its players into the South American league – in favour of its players accumulating less air miles and hopefully being less fatigued come the end of the season.
    Interestingly, Rassie Erasmus and SARU president Jurie Roux have recently been appointed to the board of the Pro14. Not sure whether this implies anything more than the Cheetas and the Kings will remain in the league for the foreseeable future, or whether SA rugby are exploring the possibility of aligning more with European rugby after the current Super rugby deal expires in 2020. I reckon they’ll still stay in Super Rugby for many reasons which I won’t go into, but it’ll still be interesting to see how they want to align their future club rugby.
    And finally, the Hawaii Islanders team sounds like a good one. Hawaii is a more lucrative market than any of the other Pacific Islands and it would finally give the Pacific Islands the professional rugby team that they deserve. They could even play one or two games a season in Suva/Apia. Also it could be a platform for US players to play for a US based team in Super Rugby and give rugby more exposure in ‘the sleeping giant’. All in all, I hope this happens and I hope it’s a successful franchise.

  3. Thanks for the interesting comments, George. An interesting statistic I read somewhere recently was that 30% of the players at the 2015 World Cup were of Pacific Island ancestry! & I’d hazard a guess that about half the teams there must have featured at least one player of Pacific Island extraction. Everybody talks about the money issues, but this is a real rugby hotbed, and Honolulu is a Polynesian city capable of hosting a franchise. I don’t see them playing in Suva or Apia, however. One of the problems with the Islanders concept of the past (it has been done) is that Fijians have little in common with Samoans and Tongans culturally. They are Melanesian, more akin to Papua New Guineans and Solomon Islanders. Suva is a small city of about 90,000 but has a 25 K stadium that is invariably filled to the brim for major fixtures. That’s why I suggest Fiji could possibly host its own team. Apia and Nuku’alofa are just towns and staging fixtures there would be tremendously costly. But Polynesians, I believe, will accept Honolulu as their spiritual capital and embrace a team based there. Meanwhile, I have heard about the South American pro league, but this will probably be more on the scale of the Japanese league, and no reason the continent could still be involved in Super Rugby. South Africa being involved in both European and Super Rugby is a little surreal as well. Who knows, maybe we’ll just end up with a European conference featuring in a global Super Rugby competition !!

    • “that Fijians have little in common with Samoans and Tongans culturally. They are Melanesian, more akin to Papua New Guineans and Solomon Islanders.” You got it totally 180 degrees wrong there,Quentin. Not sure where you got that info from. Fiji is MORE cultural attached to this pure blooded Polynesian countries in language and costume (Fiji’s Eastern part of the Island group has Polynesian bloodlines. Look up Lau group) than you think. Look at also our traditional Masi design and the names we have. For example, Rupeni Caucaunibuca’s first name “Rupeni” is Polynesian. You have a Samoan 7’s player, Rupeni Lavasa, going by that first name. And there is Tevita Kurudrani, who is Fijian playing for the Wallabies, and there is another Tongan Tevita across the Tasman, Tevita Li. Yes, we are predominately a Melanesian country, but as you know, skin color doesn’t shape how one thinks, it’s there culture that does influence them.

      Thank you.

      • I’m away of the Polynesian component but, as you yourself agree, Fiji is predominantly Melanesian and is classified as such. To suggest that Melanesian and Polynesian peoples have the same culture and language would be wrong. But of course it wouldn’t matter if the proposed franchise wanted to select Fijian players anyway. There should be any racial restriction; I’m just suggesting Samoa and Tonga as its primary catchment area. Fiji is big enough and good enough to be included on its own.

        • Corrected version:

          I’m awaRE of the Polynesian component but, as you yourself agree, Fiji is predominantly Melanesian and is classified as such. To suggest that Melanesian and Polynesian peoples have the same culture and language would be wrong. But of course it wouldn’t matter if the proposed franchise wanted to select Fijian players anyway. There shouldN’T be any racial restriction; I’m just suggesting Samoa and Tonga as its primary catchment area. Fiji is big enough and good enough to be included on its own.

          • We could argue on about what happened during the Ice Age and then how the first Melanesian, Polynesian, and Micronesian occupied the Pacific Islands, but I’m telling you this, for someone who has lived and played much of his rugby back in the islands, your “classification “ arguments isn’t factual in real life back in the islands. I suggest you head to Hawaii and Fiji and gather some polls from this three pacific islands nationals: Tongan, Samoan, and Fijians in how similar we are and how different Fijians are from other Melanesian countries culturally, and they’ll tell what I just said.

            Point trying to make: Fiji is the ONLY Melanesian country that is unique cause it has Polynesian culture deeply imbedded in us and is visible in our tradition. We look Melanesian but we don’t FEEL like one cause we can’t relate to our Melanesian brothers like we do to our Polynesian brothers culturally. Fiji isn’t the only country in the world that is centered in between races. Look at kazakhstan, for example. Predominantly Asian but culturally it’s more Eastern European.

            I hope I’m making my point clear?

            Thanks.

          • You’re making a point that I already knew. & it’s not my classification. I was born in Polynesia, have Polynesians in my family and spent a great deal of my youth studying Polynesian and Melanesian anthropology – long before it was fashionable or even particularly accessible. So I am happy to discuss these issues, and enjoy doing so as long as we’re not just going around in circles. Thanks for your comments.

          • Sorry, sometimes my name comes up as Tighthead Trev. That’s just a name I use on Facebook!

  4. I think this is a really interesting idea. I think that Hawaii is the answer; the Polynesian heritage would be the selling point, but, moreover; if the new Major League Rugby in the USA is successful this may be a natural stepping stone for USA Rugby. The introduction of a Super Rugby team to the USA should increase the popularity of the sport and, maybe, even awake the sleeping giant that the USA has the potential to be.

    • Exactly, Rupert. They could stage the occasional game on the mainland as well, though not too many, because the emphasis here would really need to be on the Polynesian factor. If the US can’t sell enough tickets to stage a Boks v Wales test match, I think they’ll a long way off staging Super Rugby games !!

  5. I read that the Hawaii doesn’t have a professional team in any sport, but a spectacular stadium. This idea is a winner, perhaps they’ll show the rest of the competition how to support your team. My experience at Arrowhead Stadium is everyone turns up even if your team is a dud, lets infect Super Rugby with that!

  6. Sadly nothing has been heard from the consortium since they lost out on their bid to buy the Warriors. Not sure what’s happened there, but I thought the Hawaiian Islanders was supposed to be their ‘Plan B.’ Meanwhile, you may have read that the New Zealand government is funding an eighty thousand dollar feasibility study into the possibility of basing a Pacific Islands team in Suva. That is something I have advocated personal since the advent of Super Rugby. Hawaii or Fiji? Hopefully one or the other will come through…

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