It’s a sad indictment that when Australia’s Super Rugby teams now travel to New Zealand, the prevailing mindset is one of damage minimisation.
Wins seem almost fanciful, losses inevitable.
The trip to Auckland to face the Blues is the only clash – to any sane Strayan rugby fan – that truly offers any hope of jagging a precious victory.
The other four foes have the potential to humiliate, as the Melbourne Rebels found out in Round 2 when they were hammered 71-6 by the Hurricanes in Wellington.
Depressingly, the Waratahs’ 38-28 defeat to the Canes a fortnight ago is about as good as it currently gets: blasted off the park in the first half and in all sorts of trouble down 33-7, the Tahs showed a fair bit of ticker against a bruising opposition to edge reasonably close.
Nonetheless, they were never a realistic chance of knocking over the reigning champions. The 10-point losing margin was honourable.
Trips across the Tasman have been the competition’s most arduous for many years, but certainly over the past 12 months the gap between the five Aussie sides and the five Kiwi teams has widened and the inequality shows few signs of receding. It’s a harsh reality.
This season’s 12 straight losses to Kiwi teams proves travel isn’t the only impediment to victory.
The Brumbies take on the Hurricanes in Napier tonight and it could get ugly. Already red-hot, there are enough Hurricanes who have aspirations to win an All Blacks jersey for the first Test against the British and Irish Lions.
The Hurricanes are at odds of $1.12 to win; the Brumbies at $8.
In fact, this round of Super Rugby looks like the perfect example of why the broadcasters are so keen to urgently reduce the number of teams to improve competitiveness.
Out of the eight games, four or five could conceivably be blowouts.
The Roar’s erudite rugby fans will be aware of the discrepancies in form and class of some of this round’s adversaries.
On top of the Canes-Brumbies, the Waratahs ($1.06) face the Kings ($9.50), the Lions ($1.13) take on the Jaguares ($6.05), the Highlanders ($1.002) meet the Sunwolves ($81), the Western Force ($5) host the Chiefs ($1.18), the Crusaders ($1.13) are at home to the Stormers ($6) and the Rebels ($6.50) are in Durban to battle the Sharks ($1.12). The remaining clash is – at least to the bookies – relatively even with the Bulls ($1.36) against the Cheetahs ($3.15).
Hopefully we’ll see some boilovers. But for now it can be regarded as a fairly straightforward tipping round.
So who could blame the broadcasters for bemoaning the lack of close matches and therefore their push for the much-maligned restructure?
For Fox Sports, they’ll be lobbying SANZAAR and the national unions to deliver a trimmed-down format that resembles the competitiveness of the NRL and AFL.
If you take the NRL as an example, you could argue that just about all 16 teams have a chance of beating any other team on any given day. There are many factors in play, but it’s a big reason why Fox Sports often get TV ratings of around 250,000 for NRL games. They will probably be cringing at what numbers the Tahs-Kings match tonight will dish up.
The ARU decision on which Australian team is being cut is likely for next week. It’s arguably a bit easier to deliver the news if the Rebels or Force have been carved up, which is entirely possible.
There’s plenty of doom and gloom around Australian rugby, but fast forward to next year when there are four teams and the quality has been condensed.
Hopefully for Australian fans, the impending Super Rugby reset will bring optimism that matches in New Zealand – and even at home – won’t need to be viewed nervously with the solid dose of dread that currently lingers.