The prevalence of streaming sport in New Zealand over the last few years has led to a much broader sport offering and is largely due to the arrival of Spark Sport. It is hard to believe that Spark Sport only launched in March 2019 and is coming up to its third birthday. Having landed the rights to the 2019 Rugby World Cup in its first year and becoming the new home of cricket in New Zealand, Spark Sport is well on its way to fulfilling its mission. What is that mission you ask? “The aim for us is to build New Zealand's best sports streaming service,” says Head of Spark Sport, Jeff Latch. Rugby is high on the agenda for Spark Sport with the RWC19 already under its belt and will be broadcasting the 2021 Rugby World Cup (now 2022) in October and November. A steppingstone in the aim to become the best is the current streaming of the newly formatted United Rugby Championship (URC) in which Spark Sport is the exclusive New Zealand broadcaster. “We're really keen to build out more rugby content on our platform. It's New Zealand's number one winter game and we absolutely would like to carry more, which is actually one of the things that led us to the investment in terms of the United Rugby Championship”
The URC replaces the previous Pro14 Competition and involves leading professional teams from South Africa, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Italy. This year, the league has expanded to include the four South African teams – the Cell C Sharks, DHL Stormers, Emirates Lions and Vodacom Bulls - who previously played in Super Rugby making for a bigger, bolder, and stronger competition than ever before. Spark Sport evaluated all the rugby competitions that were available across the UK and Europe looking for a long running competition that included some teams that New Zealanders would be familiar with. In 2019, Spark Sport carried out the Heineken Cup but found that one of the main challenges was that fans did not have the Kiwi connection to the teams involved. The URC on the other hand has the Stormers, Sharks, Bulls and the Lions, teams that Kiwis are familiar with due to their rich playing history in New Zealand and because a lot of Kiwi players feature in their line ups.
“The standard of rugby (in the URC) is also really high. And there's so many of the world's best rugby players now in the competition,” says Latch. Teams are made up of international players from South Africa, Australia, Ireland, Scotland Wales, and Italy along with over a dozen Kiwis playing in the competition. Familiar names like James Lowe, Rhys Priestland, Hamish Watson, Josh McKay, Michael Ala’alatoa, Johnny Sexton, Bundee Aki and Jamison Gibson-Park grace the field in the URC. There is plenty of URC to watch with all games live on Spark Sport from the quarterfinals onwards and up to six games being played every weekend in the lead up to the finals. To celebrate the addition of South Africa to the mix, Spark Sport took all South African games live and on-demand.
“What we're trying to provide for our viewers is that you can turn on Spark Sport and know on Saturday and Sunday morning that you're going to get live United Rugby Championship games whenever the schedule permits us to take that. There's pretty much URC games every weekend now coming through for the rest of February and into March, which is tremendous, you're going to end up with a really strong finish to the season,” says Latch.
If you are yet to tune in, the URC season is about halfway through and although there have been some difficulties for the South African teams due to COVID protocols, the season is about to ramp up with some great rivalries forming. Latch has been following the games and feels that Edinburgh and Leinster are well positioned to make it through to the semifinals. “I'm expecting over the balance of the season though that the Springbok laden teams will actually start to perform a lot better, so it'll be really interesting to see what the makeup is of the top six to eight teams by the time we get to the playoffs.”
What’s on the horizon for Spark Sport?
Firstly, the Rugby World Cup 2021 (2022) in which every match will be live on Spark Sport.
Latch is looking forward to this tournament, “I think New Zealanders will get in behind our team and the competition in the way we typically do whenever there's a World Cup taking place in New Zealand in any sport. The Black Ferns have really raised the bar over the last few years, so it is going to be an incredibly exciting and tough competition.
Secondly, it is to carry on as Spark Sport set out to do - building New Zealand's best sports streaming service. “We will look to invest in sporting competitions that we think will build and bring in a decent audience. When it comes to rugby, we are continuously looking to expand our offering to ensure a different and exciting line-up of entertainment for our Kiwi fans.”
Kiwis in the United Rugby Championship
Jamison Gibson Park
Born in New Zealand, Gibson-Park now plays for Leinster Rugby and represents Ireland after qualifying through the three-year residency rule. He has also represented the Māori All Blacks, Hurricanes, Blues and Taranaki.
The Winger/Full Back born in Nelson now plays for Leinster Rugby and represents Ireland after having completed the three-year residency period. Lowe is a former Chiefs player and represented the Māori All Blacks.
Plays centre for the Ospreys in the URC. As an 18year old, Collins turned down an offer from the NRL franchise the Melbourne Storm to play for his home province of Otago instead.
Currently playing as prop for Dragons. Seuli previously played for Glasgow Warriors, Otago and the Highlanders in Super Rugby.
Catch selected matches live and on-demand
All South African matches live and on-demand