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The Wrap: World League, Super Rugby and The Smiths

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Expert
3rd March, 2019
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The five most common surnames in the world are Li, Zhang, Wang, Nguyen and Garcia. None feature on any of the Super Rugby rosters, perhaps a reminder that, despite excitement building around the Rugby World Cup and the potential for exponential commercial growth, actual world domination is still some distance away.

The leading surname in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand comes in at No.8 on the list: Smith.

Everybody knows a Smith or three, privately within their own circle of friends, by association or from the public arena.

Will, Maggie, Anna Nicole, Jaclyn, Mel, Kevin from the entertainment world. And don’t forget the late great Charles ‘Bubba’ Smith, Hightower from the Police Academy movies.

Joseph Smith has a big influence on a lot of lives, as does the Smith Family. Smiths also happen to make a tasty potato chip. And bless Aussie entrepreneur Dick, who insists that we buy locally made products while simultaneously failing to reconcile how his personal wealth was gained largely from selling cheap imports from Asia.

Music offers up Patti, Sam, Bessie, and Robert from The Cure. Desperate not to be left out, champion whiner Morrissey named his band The Smiths.

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Emmitt, Steve and Cameron (x2) are all very handy sporting Smiths, while rugby has its share off-field and on. Wayne from The Australian continues to be a grand servant of the game, while Ian is Sky Sports’ intrepid man on the sideline.

And every Australian rugby fan loves George, he of 164 Super Rugby games for the Brumbies and Reds and 111 Wallabies Tests.

As for current Super Rugby, there are JP and Ruan lurking around the Reds front row, while 23-year-old Fletcher has popped up in Wellington as Beauden Barrett’s back-up.

Which brings us to the elephants – or should I say ‘Smiths’ – in the room. Two of those are the Highlanders’ Ben and Aaron – but more on them later.

Greg Smith was capped 46 times for Fiji in an international career spanning 1995 to 2003. Fiji is currently ranked No.9 in the world and is widely considered a swoopers chance of toppling either Wales or Australia in World Cup Pool D.

Despite this, Fiji has reportedly been excluded from World Rugby’s proposed World League, a move that, if true, would crudely shunt them from being a Tier 1 contender back to the dark depths of Tier 2.

Reaction to the proposal has bordered on angry and hysterical. New Zealand Herald journalist Gregor Paul claimed that “shameless rugby bosses have just killed the game” and colleague Patrick McKendry likened World Rugby to Donald Trump, calling on Pacific island countries to “hit World Rugby where it hurts” and boycott the World Cup.

Please.

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What is undeniable is that we are at a critical juncture for rugby. There are a number of conflicting pressures and motivations at play, including, but not limited to, who retains control and primacy in the game (national unions or clubs), maximisation of revenue for the home unions and SANZAAR nations, north versus south commercial imbalances, ongoing development of Tier 2 rugby nations, player welfare and the role and make-up of new media and commercial enterprises, including large investment funds.

Ben Smith of the Highlanders charges forward.

Ben Smith. (Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Throw in milestones around the expiry and renegotiation of broadcasting rights and accusations of politicking against World Rugby vice-chairman Gus Pichot and it’s easy to see why people are jumping at shadows.

But the extent to which journalists, players and fans have worked themselves into a lather over what is really just speculation and testing the water is mystifying.

Particularly when sober and reasonable clarifications from Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle and New Zealand Rugby CEO Steve Tew, two of the people likely to know what is actually happening, were met with far less attention.

I believe that this is due to two particular misconceptions.

Firstly, World Rugby is no arbitrary decision-making body in so far as it reflects the will (and votes) of all of its member nations.

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Witness the convoluted process to try to deliver the current ‘global season’ – essentially three years of persuading and counter-persuading that eventually delivered not very much at all.

The notion that a body comprising so many vested interests – nations with varying degree of power and influence, some within entrenched geographic blocs – can nimbly deliver such a profound change in such a short time frame off the back of a couple of meetings is not supported by their own history.

The World League is far from a done deal. A follow-up meeting is scheduled for 14 March, after which the most likely outcome is that a preferred model or models will be taken back to each nation for further consideration.

A second misconception is that player welfare or Pacific Islands rugby are the main issues. They’re not. If the World League fails to materialise, it will be because a solution can’t be found that provides the six leading Northern Hemisphere nations with a better outcome than what they can obtain on their own.

World Rugby has only just rejigged regulation No. 8, which requires players transferring allegiance to a new country to sit out a five-year residency qualification period, a move clearly designed to help ensure more Pacific Island players elect to play Test rugby for their birth nation.

In that context, to simultaneously construct a new World League that allows for no meaningful Test rugby for these nations makes no sense.

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Historically New Zealand and Australia haven’t supported Pacific Island rugby as well as they might have, and there is no commercial benefit from connecting more closely now – only real and opportunity cost.

Foto Lokotui

Tonga flanker Fotu Lokotui. (Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images)

Herein lies the dilemma for New Zealand and Australia. If they can bundle Super Rugby with a World League, their potential share of the broadcast rights provides a far better outcome than SANZAAR fronting up to broadcasters next year offering their existing Rugby Championship-Super Rugby package. The potential difference has been speculated at around $15 million per annum.

However, if the quid pro quo is the inclusion of the USA at the expense of Fiji and no prospect of a genuine promotion pathway for the Pacific Island nations, then despite how badly they need the money, Tew has made it clear that New Zealand will not be party to a global deal that freezes the Pacific Islands out of international rugby and accelerates movement of their players northwards.

That might be welcome news, but people opposing a global league need to be very careful what they wish for.

As it stands, there is an opportunity for the northern unions to combine the Six Nations with Premiership Rugby and the Pro 14 to secure a mega broadcast deal without involving the Southern Hemisphere nations at all.

With SANZAAR shut out, the commercial disparity that currently exists between north and south would become massively wider, potentially with grave consequences.

Evidence from other professional sports shows that when higher amounts of money flow into a sport it invariably ends up with the players by way of increased salaries. It would then prove even more difficult to hold leading Australian and New Zealand players at home.

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The home unions would inherently prefer a World Rugby-run global competition because it would ensure they retain primacy in the game via international rugby.

They look at FIFA and see how international soccer is hostage to clubs and is largely meaningless outside the World Cup.

But if aligning with the clubs is akin to doing a deal with the devil, it’s one they might be prepared to make if the quantum is high enough and if Australia and New Zealand aren’t prepared to sacrifice Fiji in order to protect Scotland and Italy.

The key word there is ‘if’. A fascinating few weeks lie ahead.

(AAP Image/Brendan Esposito)

Meanwhile, the importance of Test rugby to the Southern Hemisphere was illustrated by the Highlanders resting Aaron and Ben Smith from their 24-19 loss to the Rebels, ostensibly because Steve Hansen needs them to be in peak condition on 2 November.

Given such a tight match, Highlanders fans might consider that their absence was the difference between losing and winning. But those same fans are also All Blacks fans, and while they might not like how Super Rugby is a compromised competition, most accept the reasons why.

It’s certainly something Rebels coach Dave Wessels understands, stating during the week, “It’s important that everyone realises that part of our role as a provincial union is to support the Wallabies.”

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The Smiths staying home in Dunedin shouldn’t diminish the Rebels’ win. All sides have to manage player workloads and it is their choice when to rest players. Super Rugby is no longer a 15-man or even a 23-man game; it tests the depth of each franchise right down to players 35-40.

The best thing about the Rebels win was how, after dropping matches from winning positions last year, they hung in and won ugly – a sign of their progression and an essential requirement at this level.

The Hurricanes are a different team with their Test players in. Ardie Savea is almost unstoppable and TJ Perenara is at his best when eyeing and creating opportunities for others, not trying to run the whole game himself.

Fans shouldn’t be too quick to drop off the Brumbies, despite their 43-13 loss. Looking back to Round 2, this result against the Hurricanes probably says as much about the respective qualities of the Chiefs and the Crusaders as it does anything else.

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The unfortunate Chiefs made history for the wrong reasons, becoming the first side to fall at home to the Sunwolves since their admission four years ago. Their roster has been exposed as thin, and they have that air of chronic lack of confidence that all struggling sides have.

The Sunwolves certainly weren’t gifted the game. They took the initiative and played with intense commitment, and 30-15 a great result for them and an even better one for the competition.

On another night the impressive Crusaders might have put 40-plus points on the Reds. But even if a number of aspects of their game are yet to come together – and coach Brad Thorn needs to decide if Bryce Hegarty or Hamish Stewart is his flyhalf – the Reds’ defensive tenacity and ability to hang tough was impressive.

Defensive tenacity is also the developing hallmark of the Jaguares, conceding possession and territory to the Blues but coping impressively with their admittedly one-dimensional attack to see it out 23-19.

The game finished in bizarre fashion with the Jaguares failing to execute at a nervous, final-minute defensive five-metre scrum, the Blues preferring not to tap the penalty but to break out the high fives and scrum again, only to concede a tighthead!

Both South African derbies went against popular opinion to the away sides – the Bulls 30-12 over the Lions and the Stormers 16-11 over the Sharks.

The South African conference is proving to be a tipster’s nightmare. After a 0-3 weekend, in the words of Morrissey and The Smiths, “Heaven knows I’m miserable now”.

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