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Momentum clearly building behind trans-Tasman solution

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4th May, 2020
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It’s long been a ‘silver bullet’ pipedream for Australian rugby fans and even Australian rugby broadcasters, but never really given a lot of thought on the New Zealand side of any trans-Tasman thinking. But two recent developments show that this idea is edging closer and closer to reality.

And it’s funny the way these things work.

Over the last twelve or so months, I’ve gained a better understanding of what Kiwis have really thought of the idea, and though the lack of the same enthusiasm as on this side of the ditch didn’t surprise me, the level of ambivalence did.

Plenty could see the merit, they just wondered why it was seen so favourably in Australia.

Then, almost as if to pre-empt the need to really start talking about trans-Tasman rugby as a genuine solution in the current global state of crisis we find ourselves, we started talking about trans-Tasman rugby from both angles.

And this in turn was interesting, because a lot of the New Zealand reporting seemed to really overstate the level of ambivalence that I’d seen myself.

Whereas my discussions might best summarise the Kiwi perspective as “yeah, it probably could work if it ever got to that point”, the reporting was more along the lines of “New Zealand has zero interest in this idea”.

That’s an obvious simplification, but you get my point. We in Australia almost certainly did overestimate Kiwi interest – especially when the topic of South Africa heading north came up – yet suddenly we were being told there was no Kiwi appetite for the idea at all.

Mark Nawaqanitawase on the run

How much love is there for trans-Tasman rugby? (AAP Image/Chris Symes)

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But late last week and over the weekend, two separate lines of reporting went a long way toward proving that not only is the trans-Tasman idea gaining momentum, but that it’s now being discussed at new levels and in ways that suggest the idea is looking more and more like a genuine basis for future models of the professional game down this way.

The first was a series of reports out of the New Zealand Herald outlining the different thinking going on in New Zealand about how a domestic model might look going forward.

Crusaders coach Scott Robertson had suggested in recent weeks that a home-and-away competition with the exiting Super Rugby franchises was well advanced, and something like that is quite likely the solution to resurrect some form of professional provincial rugby this season, just as it is in Australia.

But the Herald also outlined that other models are in play for 2021, that could see up to two new franchises created in New Zealand, with the possibility of the Pasifika team based out of Suva making up a new-eight team format.

Eight could also become twelve, though, with the addition “of four – preferably East Coast – Australian franchises or clubs”, which the NZH added in it’s typically bolshy, down-the-nose view of Australian rugby, would add some ‘inevitable mismatches’, a convenient ignoring of the opening rounds already played this year.

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Crucially, the reports said, Australia’s inclusion would be “dependent on the health of Australian rugby in the post-COVID environment”. New Zealand doesn’t need to prop up Australian rugby, fair enough, but if there’s significant broadcast and commercial benefits, they’re all ears.

It’s become clear through reporting over the ditch over the last week that while a fully professional 14-team Mitre 10 Cup would be every Kiwi rugby fan’s nirvana, there’s just no way it can be feasible. Heavily subsidised as it already is, there just wouldn’t be a local market big enough to pay for it.

Hence, the need to create a market big enough to potentially grow the domestic playing stocks in New Zealand, while also adding a bit of Pacific Island flair. And that’s where Australia fits the picture. Add New Zealand Rugby’s growing ties and interest in Japanese rugby, and it’s not difficult to hear the cogs working on a trans-Tasman model for next season.

And we could even see some form of it this year, with the idea of a coming together of domestic comps on both sides of the ditch to play a form of ‘Super-ish Rugby’ finals already on the table. And that will inevitably be helped by the prospect of a ‘trans-Tasman travel bubble’ opening up later in the year, a topic discussed by our respective Prime Ministers late on Monday afternoon.

The second point that piqued my interest was a phone hook-up by the respective players associations, planned for this week, where senior Wallabies Matt To’omua and Michael Hooper will speak with All Black counterparts to explore trans-Tasman scenarios and competition formats.

“I’ve been talking with Rob (New Zealand Rugby Players Association chief executive Rob Nichol) about the potential for a competition between the two countries and their view is very encouraging about wanting to reach out and have senior player interaction,” RUPA CEO Justin Harrison told the Sydney Morning Herald last Friday.

The fact the player bodies have reached this point is significant. Governing bodes and national unions talk about competition structures and potential formats all the time, but when the players become involved, you know it’s progressed well beyond the whiteboard phase.

James O'Connor

Would an AU-NZ Super Rugby comp help or hinder Aussie rugby? (Photo by Patrick HAMILTON / AFP via Getty Images)

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Super Rugby as we know it almost certainly can’t continue, with travel costs to South Africa and Argentina alone likely to be beyond prohibitive, so what might all this mean for SANZAAR going forward? The arrival of an exceptionally timely statement while writing this column cleared all this up in ways better than I possibly could have.

“Having spoken with my SANZAAR Board members I can confirm that none of the suggested models or structures that have been commented on recently, such as stand-alone Trans-Tasman formats, have been agreed by any of the SANZAAR unions individually or collectively,” SANZAAR CEO, Andy Marinos, said in the governing body’s statement from the blue.

“All such reports are merely speculative and have no basis to them,” he continued.

“This is not to say that we are not having realistic discussions on what may have to eventuate should COVID-19 restrictions continue beyond 2020. We are presently looking in detail at various competition formats but any agreed format will include teams from all four stakeholder national unions.

“Due to uncertainty over what various government restrictions, if any, may look like next year including international travel, no date has been set yet as to when a decision will be made on 2021 and beyond. A major consideration is that we also have an obligation to discuss any contingencies with our broadcast partners in the first instance after which we will make public comment,” Marinos concluded.

Any questions? Have you ever seen a statement say so little in so many words, even just narrowing that down to SANZAAR statements?

Regardless of whatever the hell the governing body are trying to say, it’s becoming more and more apparent that the idea of trans-Tasman rugby has moved well beyond the pipedream, now catapulted into the realm of reality.

Too much is being written and commented on and reacted to on both sides of the Tasman for the concept to go nowhere now.

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And I don’t mind admitting I’m a lot more excited about the game going forward than I was this time last week.