Rugby

Chiefs to turn their backs on Fijian money ball?

Canon Rugby in Focus: Jim Kayes ponders why Super Rugby doesn't fully embrace the lucrative Fijian market. 

The Chiefs' win in Suva came on a rare night in Super Rugby history.

Not just because they won after trailing 0-20 against the Crusaders, a team that so rarely surrenders such a lead no one I’ve checked with can remember when it last happened.

No, the rarity of that sweltering night in Suva was that the match was played in front of a full house and both franchises made a fair bit of money.

The Crusaders were paid about $300k while the Chiefs, as hosts, pocketed $500k.

People at games and money in the bank are becoming rarer and rarer in Super Rugby, where New Zealand’s big stadiums play host to small crowds.

It suggests those involved should be looking to extend the four-year deal that has seen the Crusaders and Chiefs play each other in Suva three times, while the Highlanders hosted the Chiefs last year.

The games are backed by the Fiji government, its sports council and private commercial interest Fortress Information Systems, a Dunedin company with significant shares in the Highlanders. It’s a combination that’s working and raises, yet again, the question why Fiji don’t have a legitimate role in Super Rugby, either as a stand-alone team or a base for a combined Pacific side.

Rugby is religion in Fiji and those that were there for the build-up to last Saturday’s game say it was wonderfully festive and that the passion in the crowd on the night was amazing.

Those are descriptions seldom used for New Zealand crowds these days, especially as attendance at games continues to decline.

The Chiefs have played in Rotorua in the past two years and have taken seven home games at New Plymouth’s Yarrow Stadium.

“But with [Yarrow Stadium] out of order and attendance dwindling at Rotorua, we felt that this was the best option for the organisation,” Chiefs CEO Mike Collins said.

When asked if the money from a game in Suva was demonstrably better than what’s made from games in New Zealand, he said such information was commercially sensitive.

“What I can say is that it’s better than hosting a home game, generally.”

Collins said there were just under 20,000 at the match while other reports put the figure as high as 25,000. What is certain is that the crowd loved it.

“It was absolutely unbelievable the way the Fijian people got into the game, the number of hours they turned up before the game and they stayed on afterwards," Collins said.

“They are very, very passionate rugby supporters.”

There were “early indications” this match would be the last in Suva and the Chiefs had to see when the refurbishment of Yarrow Stadium would make it available again. Tauranga could also have a stadium soon and he hoped Rotorua's crowds could increase.

But he admitted Suva ticked a lot of boxes.

“The Chiefs organisation have done a wonderful job over the four years they have been going [to Suva]. It’s definitely rewarding.”

Which begs two questions.

Why on earth does Sanzaar continue to ignore the Pacific Islands as a base for a Super Rugby team? It can obviously be viable financially and we all know they have the playing stocks.

And at the very least, why aren't more games being played there when the game is being increasingly ignored in New Zealand?

It doesn’t always go right - as the Blues showed in 2017 when their match against the Reds in Apia bombed.

But that event was poorly promoted, with the Blues not arriving in Samoa till the day before the match. It was seen as expensive by Samoans and fell on a public holiday when buses weren’t running.

Former Samoan international Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu was scathing in his assessment of that match when I spoke to him on RadioLive soon after.

"They obviously had not done any research at all and just thought that 'Samoans love rugby and they'll accept any rubbish that we give them'. They gave us this completely ignorant, arrogant game without doing any research to what works and the market here," he said.

"The thing is, we have that money, we paid more to watch the All Blacks, but you're not the All Blacks and you haven't done anything. The whole 'not even coming to Samoa to spend some money in our economy' thing - who are you, who do you think you are?

"It is really, really arrogant and that came across."

But the Chiefs, Crusaders and Highlanders have shown it can work, if done right.

The question now is whether they will continue to get it right by continuing to play in Fiji.

The views of the author are not necessarily endorsed by Canon.

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