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The Wrap: The Sunwolves and Super Rugby’s shame file

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16th February, 2020
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It hurts to watch the Sunwolves.

With 18,700 lively, animated fans selling out Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium and enjoying a highly entertaining and competitive match that ended in a 43-17 win to the Chiefs, we were reminded again of all that is good about the Sunwolves and Super Rugby.

That’s a crowd roughly 50 per cent larger than that of Melbourne and Canberra’s combined. This is a crowd who not only got to see Lachlan Boshier crack 100 breakdown turnovers for the season in Round 3 but once again will have gone home pondering the folly of ejecting the Sunwolves from the competition.

Any man and his dog will tell you how Super Rugby is failing to capture hearts and minds. What to do then with the one franchise where there is passionate, tribal crowd support in a developing rugby nation where the sport is riding a wave of popularity in the wake of a fantastically successful World Cup?

Give them the arse, that’s what. Here’s the shame file.

The Japan Rugby Football Union, for failing to provide the necessary financial underwriting as required by SANZAAR and for insisting that local fans follow company-based domestic Top League teams they have no affiliation to – rather than align with a fresh venture that they do identify strongly with – that competes in a high-quality league against many of the world’s leading players.

The South African Rugby Union, for acting like entitled Sydney clubs refusing to support the NRC, determining that their sides will not travel to Japan, thus forcing the hands of their SANZAAR partners.

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As an aside, if it does transpire that South Africa were to leave SANZAAR in a wholesale shift north, what an appalling situation it would be if they were found to have been a driving force behind the Sunwolves’ exclusion and still didn’t stick around themselves.

SANZAAR, whose insistence on prioritising performance in Test rugby continually comes at the expense of failing to promote Super Rugby and allowing it to be the best competition it can be. Here’s a tip, guys: you can do both.

SANZAAR’s broadcast rights partners, for insisting that Super Rugby revert to 14 teams to improve the quality and competitiveness of matches. Again, this is largely led from South Africa, where matches involving the Sunwolves aren’t considered to be of value.

Rugby fans, for insisting upon reverting from a 15-team conference structure to a 14-team round robin, all in the supposed name of fairness, but which is now revealed to come at a cost. A higher cost, I’d suggest, than the supposed benefit.

Commentators in Australia, for pushing a false narrative that nobody in Australia will watch their sides play teams from Japan, South Africa and Argentina. Yes, they will, if it is packaged and presented properly and you stop death riding it and talking it down.

The current broadcasting rights round is likely to ensure a near to status quo outcome for the period through until 2025 – minus Sunwolves from Super Rugby, potentially plus Japan into the Rugby Championship.

Depending on what South Africa can arrange for itself in the north, it may well be that from 2026 onwards Australia and New Zealand will be forced into a new franchise/provincial competition that does involve Japan.

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Garth April Sunwolves

(Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

There are two important risks associated. One is not striking while the iron is hot, while interest in rugby in Japan is at an all-time high – by not recognising two years ago that the World Cup was going to be a huge success and acting then – might represent a missed opportunity.

The other risk is that such a delay provides time for Japan to get its own house in order via the attractiveness of the sport to new corporate investors to establish a more lucrative professional league than the current one. This is occurring now.

Make no mistake, the combined Australian and New Zealand commercial market is too small to pay leading players enough money to keep them at home playing in a trans-Tasman (or plus Argentina) competition.

Do not assume that Australia and New Zealand will be able to go to Japan and ask them to join their competition and be welcomed with open arms in the future. More than likely, because in professional sport he who has the most money holds sway, it will be the other way around.

Nine years is a long time in rugby. On 18 February 2011 I attended the first match for the Melbourne Rebels in Super Rugby, at AAMI Park against the Waratahs.

There were 24,000 fans in that night – where 17,500 of them have gone in the years since is another story in itself – to see a hardened, professional outfit dominate the home side to such an extent that the Rebels could barely secure possession let alone mount a serious scoring threat. If anything, 43-0 probably flattered the home side.

Before the weekend the Waratahs had extended that winning record over the Rebels to 15-2, but now, in the wake of this 24-10 win to the Rebels, nine years suddenly seems like a very long time ago.

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For the first three quarters the quality of rugby was low. Tension was evident from the sidelines as two sides with a 0-2 start to the season tiptoed on eggshells, understandably wary of being rooted to the bottom of the conference ladder.

To be fair, Melbourne’s hot and humid run of weather had been broken a couple of hours earlier by showers that rendered the ball and pitch slippery. Although, as Waratahs coach Rob Penney acknowledged afterwards, not all of his side’s 19 unforced errors could be blamed on the weather.

Waratahs coach Rob Penney is seen during the warm-up

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Penney’s side lacks presence in the front five and might benefit from combining Kurtley Beale and Karmichael Hunt in the centres, although none of that will matter a jot if they can’t execute basic kick-off receipts and generously invite opposition sides into their red zone to place them under pressure.

They also need to address their tendency to over-compress in defence. In three matches this season the Waratahs have conceded 14 tries. Incredibly, 12 have gone to wingers and outside centres and only two to forwards.

The Rebels’ final quarter was impressive, signalling further the improvement made in each match. It was their lineout that provided the platform, replacement hooker Steve Misa nailing a series of throws, Matt Philip a huge presence at the driving maul and halfback Ryan Louwrens making the most of opportunities opened up by his pack’s growing dominance.

On a night when there was little cohesive back play, Matt Toomua saw space and, in concert with Dane Haylett-Petty, expertly sent Andrew Kellaway into the corner for the clinching score. It was a nice coda to Toomua’s sound tactical appreciation of the conditions and his solid kicking game to match.

To mark a ten-year anniversary of sorts the Rebels opened up their changing room after the match to foundation members, many of whom suffered the pain of that opening night against the Waratahs, to allow them to share the moment with the players and to hear coach Dave Wessels’s debrief.

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While the Rebels’ start to the season has been modest, the franchise has been working hard to further strengthen ties with the local rugby community, and the organisation is passionately united. Reports of the death of rugby, at least south of the Murray, are premature.

The Rebels’ weekend got even better on Saturday night when Australian conference leader the Brumbies were hustled off their game by the Highlanders, who snatched a 23-22 win well after the final siren.

Again, conditions were difficult, but there was little for home fans to enthuse about aside from their ruthlessly efficient lineout maul, which delivered three tries. Behind for much of the second half, the Brumbies curiously lacked urgency, letting play drift for lengthy periods and failing to collectively match the Highlanders’ enthusiasm in all aspects of the game.

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Even after gaining what should have been a matchwinning six-point lead, the Brumbies were too submissive in trying to run the clock down and presented a final opportunity to the visitors on a plate. Scott Sio did not exactly cover himself in glory with his final tackle attempt.

It’s easy to be wise after the event, but with Ryan Lonergan having exited the 22 strongly on two previous occasions, one more would almost certainly have got the job done, setting the Highlanders a huge task to score from a lineout 40 metres out in the wet.

The Highlanders lack firepower and star power compared to previous years, but this gutsy, spirited and tactically superior win – they used the grubber effectively on a slippery night – will inject a huge dose of self-belief into their squad for the rounds ahead.

Aaron Smith of the Highlanders charges forward

(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

One side never lacking in confidence is the Crusaders. The Blues gave them a decent contest, but not enough to prevent a 25-8 win in Auckland. Meanwhile, down in Wellington the Hurricanes and Sharks played out a highly entertaining match, which finished 38-22 to the home side.

The Hurricanes weren’t afraid to roll the dice, being intercepted once for a try before tossing up two cross kicks that on another night might have come off for the Sharks’ fliers but that instead turned into tries for themselves.

And, forgetting about 63-metre penalty goals for a second, how good is Jordie Barrett’s goal kicking at present?

This match also threw up the comedy moment of the weekend: Carlos Spencer, in an assistant coaching role, interviewed at half-time, suggesting that the Hurricanes needed to show more patience in the attacking zone.

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Perhaps the players had been watching too many old clips of Carlos himself in action?

The Stormers joined the Highlanders in scoring a try after the siren to sneak a win, 33-30 against the Lions, and so take charge of the South African conference.

Their main challenger appears to be the Jaguares, who recovered from an impressive first-half 24-7 blitz from the Reds to run away to a 43-27 win. Included in their tally were no fewer than four tries from attacking lineout mauls.

Get in early and get your tickets for the Round 11 maul-a-thon in Canberra, when the Brumbies host the Jaguares. Should be a cracker!

Coming on top of problems at lineout last week against the Lions, the Reds simply need to get home and get working on an effective maul defence. Fans can complain all they like about this aspect of the game, but the fact is that it is part of rugby, where retention of forward strength elements is essential to ensure balance and contrast between back and forward and to avoid going down the path of rugby league, where player positions have become largely interchangeable.

Finally, a first for Australian rugby this week, with the release of a competitive tender for broadcasting rights. Never before has there been real competitive tension around securing rugby rights.

While the battle between Fox Sports and Optus is unlikely to achieve a windfall result (most other factors impacting the market are negative), the presence of two principal bidders, plus interest from free-to-air TV and digital players, will ensure that Rugby Australia achieves an outcome significantly better than what it would have achieved if it had accepted Fox Sports’ first refusal offer.

Recent headlines proclaiming Fox Sports withdrawing from rugby have now been exposed as chest-thumping nonsense. Their war chest may be light-on for funds, but they remain keen to retain rugby and senior executives are said to be upset that some of the thinly veiled attacks on Rugby Australia and Raelene Castle, masquerading as reporting, have gone too far.

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Unlike the Sunwolves in Super Rugby, this race still has some way to go.