After the first three rounds of Super Rugby offered a few green shoots of encouragement for Australian rugby, the last few days have seen dark clouds again gather over the game, suggesting an uncertain future.
With the exception of the Waratahs – who as semi-finalists last year are starting from a higher base – the remaining three Australian franchises have all shown enough improvement to suggest to fans that the gross imbalance in the competition has been reduced to a mere point of difference.
However, after a combative but indifferent match between the Rebels and Brumbies, and a wholly unsatisfying derby between the Waratahs and Reds on Saturday night, doubts have again emerged about the ability of Australian sides to foot it with the best teams in the competition.
That’s not the worst of it however. World Rugby’s proposed ‘World League’ has encountered severe turbulence, with potentially grave consequences for Australia, New Zealand and to a lesser extent Argentina and South Africa.
In Dublin this week, the future shape of global rugby will be thrashed around, with any number of outcomes still possible.
But the futility of framing discussion about the World League around the inclusion or exclusion of Fiji has been laid bare by Premiership Rugby and the French LNR this week flexing their considerable muscle. It is a curt reminder as to what is really at stake.
According to a report in The Daily Telegraph, the two bodies representing the clubs are threatening to sue World Rugby if it proceeds with the World League, believing this steps outside an agreement struck last year in San Francisco, purported to guarantee structure of the global season to 2032.
The core of the conflict can be broken down thus; does World Rugby (and by definition, it’s member unions) have the authority and mandate to dictate the structure of global rugby as it sees fit?
Or do the clubs – to whom northern hemisphere players are contracted to – have sufficient power to impose their season, with agreed windows allowed for Test rugby?
Battle-lines have been drawn around player welfare, although it’s safe to consider this a cloak for what is really at stake – ultimate power and control of the game.
The clubs claim that the World League would place unacceptable demands on players. This despite the league not requiring nations to play any more Tests than they do now – and in the case of the SANZAAR nations, fewer.
It’s all in the eye of the beholder, of course. Consider that the current English Premiership runs from the 31st August last year, until the first June. The French Top 14 extends even further, from the 25th August, until the 15th June.
That’s more than 9 and a half months. Add in pre-season training and trial matches, and it’s easy to see why clubs might prefer their players not to bother with the pesky business of touring foreign lands to play Test rugby.
The smoke and mirrors continued, with another club source stating; “World Rugby are trying to impose a model without consulting us while trying to wreck the tournaments already in place here which are generating significant revenues for the game.”
Revenues for the game? Try revenue for the clubs. Clubs that in many cases are heavily in debt, but who will continue to spend money to live above their means, trying to attract better players. Self-absorbed clubs, who – rightly or wrongly – carry no responsibility for the well-being of the global game.
Raelene Castle and Steve Tew have one central task this week, and – at the risk of sounding heartless – it isn’t to help design a global competition that ensures a pathway for Pacific Island nations.
Somehow the SANZAAR bosses, and World Rugby heads, Sir Bill Beaumont and Gus Pichot, and CEO Brett Gosper, need to find a way to convince the RFU (England) and FFR (France) of two things;
1. that the proposed Global League provides them with a better financial outcome than their current position, or potential position should they construct an alternative broadcast rights deal in concert with the clubs, and that it doesn’t undermine the Six Nations; and
2. that the optimal future of the game is contingent upon them aligning with their fellow nations, and that a head-on battle with Premiership Rugby and the LNR, for the primacy of Test rugby over club rugby is a battle worth having
If they can do this, rugby will have its World League, and with it, regardless of any imperfections, an opportunity to mitigate the commercial imbalances that threaten to relegate the SANZAAR nations to ‘feeder’ status for the northern club competitions.
If they can’t, then rugby will move a step closer to the soccer model, where the best players in the world congregate into a small number of rich, northern hemisphere club competitions, and international rugby – outside of the World Cup and the Six Nations – pales into insignificance.
Critics of World Rugby, Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby need to think again, very carefully, as to who the villain in this piece really is, think about where their bread is buttered, and consider what they want the game to look like in five, ten and twenty years time.
The Rebels certainly know what their game is based on; a developing culture of character and self-belief. Trailing by 16 points at half-time, facing the first ten minutes of the second half a man down, and with all momentum to the Brumbies, things looked bleak for Dave Wessels’ men.
But two key moments swung the match their way, the first when Quade Cooper’s second-half kick-off swung violently and late away from the reach of Rory Arnold, allowing Jack Maddocks to sweep the Rebels into attack, from where Marika Koroibete showed great strength and determination to score an unlikely try.
The second came in the 64th minute, with the Rebels hot on attack, when David Pocock (who was once again imperious at the breakdown), left the field with a tight calf. At the very next scrum, the Brumbies were penalised and Will Genia tapped, ran and wriggled for the try, all before Pocock had barely made it to the bench to consider how he would have occupied the space Genia ran into.
Here was Genia at the top of his game – not just his passing, kicking and running, but the manner in which he took responsibility to lift the pace of the match, to seize the initiative from the Brumbies who, until then had controlled proceedings via their set piece.
A visibly shaken Brumbies coach Dan McKellar described how shattered he and his team were to lose from such a strong position. But while the gloss may have all gone from their Round 2 win against the Chiefs, I suspect they still have plenty to offer this competition.
Let’s hope the Reds and Waratahs have more to offer than what was an oft turgid, error-ridden display of rugby from the Sydney Cricket Ground on Saturday night. If allowances are to be made for what was a slithery ball, these only partially excuse the numerous handling mistakes and basic skill errors that studded the match.
The face of Reds’ coach Brad Thorn said it all at halftime, disbelieving that his side could play so poorly and still only be four points in arrears.
The Waratahs won, 28-17, because they figured a ‘rope-a-dope’ strategy was best for the night – particularly when they had neutered the Reds’ anticipated forward strengths, and because the Reds had insufficient backline cohesion to test their defensive line.
It was a good night for Ned Hanigan – who showed signs that he is progressing along the ‘boy to man’ transition path, while Reds youngster Isaac Lucas won plenty of plaudits for two outstanding tackles at crucial moments.
The class player on the field was Reds’ captain Samu Kerevi, but he will need to see far better execution and tactical awareness from the numbers 1-11 inside him if the Reds are going to start notching up any wins.
Adding to the general malaise in Sydney was the return to Super Rugby of the Nematode Worm, via Paris and Melbourne. Want to guess how much the SCG groundsman is looking forward to the next match there in a fortnight’s time?
Sports stadia are a huge issue in Sydney right now, particularly in light of a pending election, and with the home of the Waratahs, the Sydney Football Stadium, in a state of partial demolition next door.
But any romantic notions of a return to the SCG were soon put to rest by the realisation that fans needed kryptonite-strength binoculars to see the on-field action.
Due to sponsorship requirements and the location and suitability of other grounds, the Waratahs are in a tricky predicament. But rugby is never the winner when it is played on a true cricket oval, and when the poor quality of the match is added to the mix, it is easy to understand why many in attendance on Saturday night will be in no rush to return.
The two New Zealand derbies were far more entertaining, the Hurricanes overcoming an unconvincing effort by their pack to steal a win off the Highlanders with the final kick of the match, 25-22.
The Crusaders are a delight to watch at the moment, their set-piece efficiency, off-loading skills and willingness to back each other up, the benchmark – and more – for every other team in the competition.
A score of 57-28, nine tries to four, represented an absolute thumping of the Chiefs, although in many aspects this was a more encouraging performance from the visitors than their loss to the Sunwolves.
At some stage soon the Chiefs will figure out the benefits of playing a more direct game, of attending to their defence on the edge of the ruck, and their forward runners getting onto the front foot, before applying the razzle dazzle. When they do, look out whoever strikes them on the wrong day.
The Sunwolves let themselves down with play so ill-disciplined they made Tomas Lavanini look like a choir boy, conceding 15 penalties to 3, including two yellow cards, on their way to losing 28-20 to the Blues; Reiko Ioane scoring a lazy four tries for the winner.
In Pretoria, the Bulls moved to the top of their conference, handling the disappointing Sharks with comfort, 37-14.
In the battle of the youngsters, the Lions cubs saw off the Jaguares cubs, in a match that wasn’t as close as the 47-39 score-line might suggest. The Lions’ next opponent is the Rebels – it will be interesting to note what they make of the Jaguares scoring three times from attacking lineout mauls.
Two matters of law interpretation to finish off this week.
In the final minutes of the Melbourne match, Brumbies centre Tevita Kuridrani attempted to run the ball out from behind his own try-line, but was tackled by the goalpost. While the tackle wasn’t high, there were no arms involved. Should the referee have issued a yellow card to the post?
And what about Glen Jackson, penalising the Reds hooker Branden Paenga-Amosa in Sydney, for not striking at the ball in a first-half scrum? In what was a fascinating moment, the ball sat in the tunnel, untouched, with the two packs at a stalemate, trying desperately to heave each other off the ball.
It felt like the ultimate arm-wrestle, but Jackson – a flyhalf in a previous rugby life – was having none of it, penalising the Reds, to bring things to a head.
But the question remains, if Paenga-Amosa was at fault for not striking or hooking at the ball, why was Waratahs hooker Damien Fitzpatrick not equally culpable? What law of rugby dictates that the side feeding the scrum must strike at the ball when it is fed, but does not require the other side to do the same?
Leave your answers below; the best contribution will receive a gift-wrapped copy of the Waratahs versus Reds match to watch again at your leisure.