It’s the debate generating passionate responses on both sides of the Tasman. But as to what shape Super Rugby could take next season, neither New Zealand or Australian stakeholders are united in their views.
What is almost universally agreed is that the planned 2021 14-team round robin competition, comprising five teams from New Zealand, four from South Africa, three from Australia and Argentina’s Jaguares, is dead and buried.
Argentina’s best players are aligning themselves with European clubs while the long-running denials that South Africa’s four remaining Super Rugby franchises would head north to join the Kings and Cheetahs have suddenly grown quiet.
And New Zealand and Australia have certainly been making moves in the meantime.
After initially being leaked last week, New Zealand’s Aratipu review was handed to NZ Rugby officially on Thursday. While it is yet to be formally released, one of the key reported recommendations is that New Zealand pursues an eight-team trans-Tasman competition with its five existing Super Rugby teams, just two from Australia and potentially one based in the Pacific Islands.
This may have taken Rugby Australia administrators by surprise when it was first revealed last week, so too chief executives at the Waratahs, Reds, Rebels, Brumbies and Western Force after they had held promising conversations with their New Zealand colleagues on a trans-Tasman competition a few weeks ago.
But after a week of mud-slinging across the ditch, it certainly leaves Australia in no confusion as to how its ANZAC allies see their rugby worth.
If New Zealand Rugby cannot be swayed on the benefits of the involvement of all five Australian teams, then RA will be left with yet another potentially game-saving decision to make.
And a part of Australian rugby will suffer, no matter which was it goes.
GO TRANS-TASMAN, EVEN IF ITS JUST THREE OR EVEN TWO TEAMS
If RA did decide that an eight-team trans-Tasman competition was the best course of action, then it is natural that, by providing the lion’s share of rugby players in the land, Queensland Reds and NSW Waratahs would join such a tournament.
If the Pacific Islands were unable to set up a team within the next few months, then the Kiwis might extend one further invite to Australia which would bring the Brumbies in. Unfortunately, the Rebels and Force would be the two teams cast into obscurity, or left at the mercy of a secondary domestic competition that RA might create in such a scenario.
Given the emotion a similar decision created in 2017, and the subsequent fallout, Australian rugby would likely have to accept that an east coast footprint is all it can have in the future. But more on that later.
When the Wallabies enjoyed their success at the turn of the century, including a Bledisloe Cup run between 1998 and 2002 and the 1999 World Cup win, there were just three sides in Super 12. The core partnerships across that team played together at their franchises; think Gregan and Larkham, Horan and Little; Cockbain, Wilson and Kefu.
When the Brumbies won their first title in 2001 the Reds also made the semifinals, while the Waratahs finished eighth, but were just one win and a couple of bonus points outside the playoffs. That was the year the Wallabies defeated the British & Irish Lions, retained the Bledisloe Cup and won the Tri Nations.
Australian rugby at its absolute peak.
Many believe that the Wallabies would be best served by reverting to such a system, the thinking being that Australia’s top players are centralised across three teams and therefore are more likely to build the cohesion and combinations at provincial level that are then replicated when the Test season rolls around.
Furthermore, the competition for spots at each individual franchise is greater as there are 70 or so fewer professional contracts available around the country.
Certainly the global player market has changed since those heady days with large numbers of players heading offshore at what has become an increasingly younger age; that has only further served to dilute the talent across the country.
While Australia supplied the same amount of Super Rugby winners [two] as it had in the first 10 years of Super 12, the finishing positions further down the ladder are telling. In the five years of the 15-team Super Rugby competition, Australian teams filled two of the bottom three ladder positions in four of the five years.
Then, when the tournament shifted to its ridiculously confusing 18-team, four conference structure, where the Australian teams were part of the Australasian group with New Zealand, only the Brumbies made the finals – their 2017 appearance the result only of the warped system – while the average finishing position of Australia’s other four franchise across those two years was otherwise 14th.
Australia did play against the New Zealand franchise in both of those two years, whereas the six South African franchises, the Sunwolves and Jaguares, alternated between the Australian and New Zealand conferences.
But it also serves to invoke the memory of the embarrassing two-year run when Australia’s five Super Rugby franchises failed to win a game against New Zealand opposition for 40 straight matches.
Concerns around a repeat of that ugly run is what New Zealand Rugby officials are keen to avoid and why some are clearly reticent about rubber-stamping five teams in any trans-Tasman league, knowing that one-sided games against sub-standard opposition do little to whet the appetites of neutral observers.
SUIT YOURSELVES, NEW ZEALAND, WE’LL GO IT ALONE
If Rugby Australia can’t convince NZ rugby of the merits of having five Australian teams in a trans-Tasman competition, then the prospect of Super Rugby AU becoming a permanent fixture, at least in the short term, also has its positives.
Firstly, it would avoid another civil war, the kind of which ripped the game apart midway through 2017 and left a passionate bunch of rugby fans in Western Australia out in the cold.
No Australian rugby fan will have forgotten the image of Matt Hodgson fronting a post-match media conference in tears, knowing that the club to whom he had given his all across 140 games and eleven years was to be booted into rugby obscurity.
Australia’s players had been united in their “stronger as five” pitch, too.
It is not an episode Rugby Australia will want to relive, particularly after new chairman Hamish McLennan made a point of traveling across the country to speak with the Force’s saviour, Andrew Forrest, to ensure the team’s participation in this year’s Super Rugby AU.
Knowing the depth of his pockets, McLennan will want to keep Forrest sweet, too.
And just as there has been comments from New Zealand – see coaching buddies Steve Hansen and Ian Foster – that New Zealand doesn’t need to do Australia any favours, coaches on this side of the Tasman have been forthright in their views that Australia shouldn’t take the role of beaten-up little brother either.
Waratahs coach Rob Penney last week backed Australia to go it alone and that New Zealand would “come knocking” later on down the road, before Brumbies coach Dan McKellar made the point of his side’s sparkling early-season form which saw them defeat the Chiefs in New Zealand. The Rebels also ran up a victory across the Tasman by taking down the Highlanders.
But back to a five-team Australian competition; would it be the worst result in the short term? There are a number of young, talented Australian players across each of the five teams while the Force have also brought back the likes of Kyle Godwin and Jono Lance, after their contracts came to an end overseas.
Certainly those younger players, many who have come through the under 18s and 20s pathways, are unburdened by continued defeats at the hands of New Zealand teams; many of them have multiple age-group victories over the Kiwis, too.
Playing against solely Australian opposition would remove the risk of successive beatings at the hands of undoubtedly deeper rosters across the ditch.
But it then also could leave the Wallabies vulnerable when it came to the Test season, a point new coach Dave Rennie noted only last week.
“I think it’s vital for Australian rugby to be playing week in week out against the best,” Rennie told Sky Sport on Tuesday. “While I guess over the last few years it’s been not a helluva lot of positive results; if you look at this year the Brumbies rolled the Chiefs, Rebels beat the Highlanders, the Reds should have beat the Crusaders [having] outscored them in tries and so on.
“So the more we play against them [New Zealand sides] the better, and we get confidence [from that] when we get to a national stage.”
Given the current gulf in standard of the respective Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU competitions, the need for Australian teams to be playing consistently against New Zealand opposition, is obvious. Heading into a Bledisloe Cup match, against the best of the best from across the ditch, would be a gigantic step up and ultimately lead to only even greater hidings, if the current competitive environment of Super Rugby AU is any guide anyway.
THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE, THEN?
There is undoubtedly further bartering – a World Cup pool has been dangled as potential sweetener to NZ Rugby – and negotiating to play out before any competition[s] structure is settled for 2021 and beyond, while SANZAAR moved to shore up its own position with a strongly-worded statement on Thursday.
There is also the obvious uncertainty of the dynamic COVID-19 situation; whether a vaccine will be created; how long international travel will remain on hold; and whether the much talked about trans-Tasman travel bubble will indeed eventuate.
There are also the various commercial deals and broadcast horse-trades to consider, which will play out once New Zealand Rugby identifies its position and just what control SANZAAR might have remains fluid.
It may be that the board ignores the pleas of Hansen, Foster and co. and listens to players like Bryn Hall and Aaron Smith, who have both expressed concerns over the physical toll Super Rugby Aotearoa is taking on players.
If not, and an eight-team trans-Tasman league is favoured, then Rugby Australia will be left with yet another huge decision.
After attempting to mend some fences following the most tumultuous period in the game’s professional history, it’s hard to see RA ripping the game apart once more. Further souring a seemingly frosting trans-Tasman relationship might be the easier option, for everyone but Wallabies coach Dave Rennie.