Breaks, tries and video rates: the mid-year Super Rugby AU report card

Talking points

  • Rd 1
    Fri – 69k Waratahs v Reds
    Sat – 34k Highlanders v Crusaders / 49k Brumbies v Rebels
  • Round 2
    Fri – 53k Rebels v Reds
    Sat – 48k Crusaders v Blues / 70k Waratahs v Force
  • Rd 3
    Fri – 47k Reds v Force
    Sat – 49k Hurricanes v Blues / 53k Waratahs v Brumbies
  • Rd 4
    Fri – 45k Waratahs v Rebels
    Sat – 34k Crusaders v Hurricanes / 38k Force v Brumbies
  • Rd 5
    Fri – 29k Force v Rebels
    Sat – 36k Chiefs v Crusaders / 62k Brumbies v Reds
    (Figures courtesy OzTAM via MediaWeek) 

Ball in play time is up at Test levels in Super Rugby AU but tries and other key attacking stats are down, while television ratings show tribalism and the blockbuster games can win back viewers.

That's what the numbers say in Rugby Australia's analysis of the first half of the new season, which has employed a range of new law variations to up the excitement levels in games.

The Waratahs v Force game was the highest rating fixture in the first five rounds of the Super Rugby AU season.Credit:Getty

Seven variations are in play, including goal-line drop-outs, 50/22 and 22/50 kicks and 'Super Time'.

The numbers compare the first five rounds of the Australian-only competition with the New Zealand version, the aborted 2020 season of the old Super Rugby and its past four seasons.

The most compelling metric shows ball-in-play time is up at an average of 35.77 minutes per game, its highest levels since 2016, higher than Super Rugby Aotearoa (34.9 minutes) and two minutes higher than the average across the seven rounds of the aborted first season this year.

Importantly, the five-round average does not include the two periods of Super Time in rounds two (Rebels v Reds) and five (Force v Rebels), suggesting the law variations have helped.

Saturday's Brumbies v Reds thriller was the best example at 44 minutes, a figure broadly considered to be what a good Test match delivers these days. The Reds v Force game delivered 41 minutes of ball-in-play time in round three.

Tries per game in the Australian and New Zealand competitions are at their lowest in five seasons, down at an average of five in Australia and 5.6 in Aotearoa.

With a sample of only five teams, each team's experience affects the numbers and it is clear the Brumbies and Reds are doing the heavy-lifting on attack, with 16 and 12 tries respectively, while the Rebels (9), Waratahs (7) and Force (7) are dragging the average down.

That's down from 6.8 per game in the aborted 2020 season and a high of 7.2 in the 2018 competition.

Linebreaks are also lower, as are defenders beaten, and the Australian competition is where this drop is most stark.

Linebreaks are also down, with Australian teams making only 10.6 linebreaks on average so far this season, while the Kiwis are making 13.9. Both figures are lower than the averages aross any of the Super Rugby seasons since 2016.

It could be that higher-than-usual penalty counts are disrupting attacking flow, with referees adapting to breakdown law tweaks such as a crackdown on support players coming through the gate. Player error is also to blame, and teams are talking about the knock-on effects of playing rugby four months later than usual, when nights are dewy, cold and moist.

The Kiwis are on a level footing with previous seasons when it comes to defenders beaten, but Australian teams are lower, at an average of 39.3 per game.

It may come as a surprise that kicks in play are steady, given what appeared to be a preponderance of kicking in early round games.

Turnovers are also near their lowest levels since 2016, averaging 28.3 per game. That's marginally higher than the first iteration of the season this year (28.1) but lower than the peaks of 2016 (32.7) and 2017 (32.8).

Unsurprisingly the New Zealanders are the standard bearers, at 23.3 turnovers per game on average.

TV ratings steady with some blowouts

Television ratings, sourced from Mediaweek and OzTAM, tell a mixed tale but suggest audiences will respond to the improvement in quality typified by the Brumbies v Reds match last week, and that the history of the Western Force could be an asset for the competition going forward.

Since a solid start on 69,000 for the round one opener between the Waratahs and Reds, only two other matches have come close to that mark.

The Force's first game back in the Super Rugby fold drew 70,000 viewers on Foxtel in round two, a figure yet to be bettered. Only the Brumbies' clutch win over Queensland came close, hitting 62,000 last Saturday.

There have been low points – last Friday night’s Force v Rebels fixture drew a season low of just 29,000 – and any game without either the Reds or Waratahs has languished around the 30,000 to 40,000 mark.

But the numbers suggest 'appointment viewing' has been an important change from previous seasons, when Australian teams could be playing in any number of time slots – from 5pm to 1am on three different days.

Former RA chief executive Raelene Castle and broadcast consultants Shane Mattiske and Michael Tange made the change – to 7.05pm Friday and 7.15pm Saturday time slots – a cornerstone of their strategy for 2020.

The Waratahs v Force game was the highest rating fixture in the first five rounds of the Super Rugby AU season.Credit:Getty

In practice, it looks like fans are growing used to tuning in for the Aotearoa match on a Saturday evening, with numbers building from the mid-30,000s to a peak of up to 70,000 for the 7.15pm Australian game.

Last Saturday it was a solid 62,000 for the Brumbies v Reds, which has generated buzz about the standard of Australian games lifting across the board. Wallabies coach Dave Rennie said it was the first game he'd seen with the “genuine intensity” he was looking for.

The OzTAM ratings do not include viewers on Foxtel's streaming service Kayo, but sources told the Herald they pushed them close to the 100,000 mark for the bigger games.

The numbers are a long way off the heady days of 2011, when the Reds v Crusaders Super 14 final drew 518,000 on the pay television broadcaster.

Full season averages tell a different story, falling from 84,000 in 2010 and 2011 to 62,000 in 2015, with a 2012 peak of 110,000 – no doubt thanks to the Reds' title win and the 2011 World Cup, which was held across the Tasman.

Compared with other sports on now, Super Rugby is leagues behind the NRL and AFL, which do monster numbers on free-to-air and Fox. It is well ahead of the A-League, which only managed 51,000 on the ABC and 9000 on Foxtel for the Melbourne City v Sydney FC game on August 1.

In an indication of the importance of free-to-air exposure, however, Super Netball opened last weekend with a healthy average of 85,000 tuning in between the two games on Nine/GEM.

Castle and Mattiske's strategy prioritised free-to-air exposure in the deal they were negotiating with Optus, which was shelved when COVID-19 hit. All indications were that Optus was prepared – even happy – to sacrifice some exclusivity for a chance to grow exposure to its own brand.

It is not clear whether any of those discussions can be resuscitated nor whether RA will endeavour to repair relations with Foxtel, which reported on Friday morning a nine per cent drop in subscriptions to 2.8 million. Kayo subscriptions were back up past the 500,000 mark.

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