It’s felt like the target that we might never get to, but all the planets are aligning for the Australian incarnation of Super Rugby to get underway in early July.
All the mail suggests the local competition will be played over ten or twelve weeks by the four existing Australian sides along with the welcome return of the Western Force.
But not just the Force. Rugby Australia’s head of high-performance Ben Whittaker explained yesterday that there’s still life in the Mighty Moondogs yet.
“The draw we are looking at is a twelve-week competition, ten weeks of regular round matches and depending on the number of teams, work out how many games per week there.” Whitaker said in a hook-up.
“The Sunwolves, at the moment would be located in either New South Wales or Queensland.”
Whether finals will be played might also depend on whether it’s five or six teams in all, which potentially adds another two weeks for a three or four-team finals series.
A twelve-week program with an early July start would run through to the end of September, or early October if finals were added.
Quite what that would mean for the National Rugby Championship is anyone’s guess. Given club rugby comps across the country have all talked about playing as long a season as possible when they do finally get underway, with Grand Finals even as late as November, I don’t think it takes a lot of imagination to see a global pandemic doing what a few Sydney club heavyweights have been trying to do for years.
It’s all in line with New Zealand announcing it would move from level three to level two coronavirus restrictions from Thursday, which was what was needed for professional sport to return. NZ Rugby’s announcement of their Super Rugby Aotearoa competition within their five sides, played over ten weeks from June 13, quickly followed.
And frankly, it all can’t come a moment too soon.
It’s been nearly three weeks since the eleven, no, ten Wallabies captains sent their letter of distress to the Rugby Australia board, and aside from Raelene Castle’s resignation at CEO, it’s hard to put a finger on what else has changed.
Certainly, the politics and self-interest hasn’t died down. If anything, it’s just cranked up more, with new board members making huge demands and resigning when told ‘no’, and a state chairman believing he spoke for all his counterparts when in fact he spoke for none.
A return to actual rugby played on actual grass will be a great distraction of the mess being played out at board level, and I for one am looking forward to that.
If nothing else, it will quickly iron out which teams have managed to best maintain condition and fitness over the lockdown period.
Through all the initial back and forward about how much of a pay cut players were going to have to take, it was certainly true that the players were still training to reasonably full-time schedules. But maintaining training intensity with no sign of playing any time soon was always going to be difficult.
And then everyone was sent home.
It’s easy to take a program and some gym equipment on the way out the door, but how many players around the country have been able to ignore the comforts of home, never mind the drive-thru around the corner and home deliveries via a phone app?
And which teams’ strength and conditioning coaches were able to best keep their players in check? Undoubtedly, approaches around the country will have been different.
How many guys stuck to programs training in pairs as well as the initial smaller groups of four or five? I know the word from the Brumbies coaches was that their guys found training in pairs much harder. And the Canberra Raiders players said the same, for what it’s worth.
The Brumbies have returned to their headquarters from two weeks break. They called it ‘active rest’, effectively giving everyone a fortnight off training, but with an expectation – and agreement from the players – that some level of activity would be maintained.
But the break came in anticipation that they would at least know more about when they could resume training. More details about a return to playing games was also a hope.
In the end, they’ve timed it pretty much perfectly, with an allowance to train again in groups of ten from today, and with full squad and contact training likely to resume next week.
Over in the west, the Western Force guys were in a similar predicament after their Global Rapid Rugby campaign was shelved after just one weekend. They kept training through the shutdown, and then on their own when restrictions tightened, before coming back together last week to train in larger groups as Western Australia’s restrictions eased ahead of the east coast.
Of course, a brand-new competition – particularly with the Western Force coming in – will mean competition tables and points tallies will have to be wound back to zero.
A five-and-one record and a ten-point lead atop the Australian conference before the shutdown means the Brumbies lose out most in this department. But considering five of their 23 points had come against New Zealand sides, and the Queensland Reds had already toured South Africa and Argentina, there really is no other option.
“Yeah, I think that’s probably likely. It’s disappointing, I certainly won’t hide from that,” Brumbies coach Dan McKellar said when I put that very question to him on the weekend.
“We’d put in an enormous amount of work to have a really good pre-season and build momentum at the start of the year, we knew that was going to be important, and we did that.
“To think that those points probably won’t count for anything moving forward is disappointing, but that’s life. We’ve just got to get on with it, we reset, and we’ll be ready to go again.”
Pragmatism is going to become a key word in Australian rugby in the immediate future, and it’s very clear that the ride out of the gaping chasm the game has pushed itself into is going to take a lot time and almost certainly isn’t going to be a direct route back.
But this competition is as good a place as any to start.
Something we can get around, something we can get excited about, and maybe, just maybe, something we can start laying foundations for the future with.
A trophy idea for free
The last time all the Australian sides came together post-Super Rugby was in 2006 for one and only edition of the Australian Provincial Championship. Before that was the three seasons when the Brumbies were added to the old State of the Union series.
And as soon as the idea of an Australian domestic comp came up this year, I immediately wondered: whatever happened to the old Ricoh Cup?
It was shared by the Waratahs, Brumbies, and the Reds in those three seasons 1998 to 2000, so it may still be in a Ballymore cupboard somewhere.
But why not dig it out and give it the Brasso treatment? Play for a trophy that Australian rugby fans know, but just haven’t seen for twenty years. Even better if the Sunwolves could bring some sponsorship money from Ricoh themselves in Japan.
An idea for free. You’re welcome.