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Opinion

Why the trans-Tasman bubble must include rugby

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26th May, 2020
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If COVID-19 has created hardship across the face of the globe, it has also helped distil some essential truths more clearly. One of those truths is that the brother nations of New Zealand and Australia work best when they work together.

Some of the old Anzac spirit returned with the words of Winston Peters three weeks ago. Ostensibly speaking about the proposed travel bubble between the two countries, the Kiwi foreign minister began to touch a far deeper nerve:

“[We are] the Anzacs, one people in a bubble – albeit two countries,” Peters said.

“Time is of the essence in terms of both of our economies and if we have confidence in each other, and the same systems and see ourselves as one for the purpose of economic recovery, then I think it will be a whole lot sooner than people think.”

A joint statement from Prime Ministers Jacinda Ardern and Scott Morrison went further, envisaging an expansion after the first bridge had been built:

“Once we have established effective travel arrangements across the Tasman, we will also explore opportunities to expand the concept to members of our broader Pacific family, enabling travel between Australia, New Zealand and Pacific island countries.

“We will work with interested Pacific countries on parameters and arrangements to manage the risks.”

It is not too difficult to translate these statements to the world of rugby. Before her brusque departure, Rugby Australia’s CEO Raelene Castle was talking in terms of a natural progression from domestic to trans-Tasman and Pasifika rugby.

The comparable rate of recovery from the onset of COVID-19 in Australia and New Zealand has suddenly made government the agency of change in rugby, not SANZAAR: “It won’t be driven by what SANZAAR want to do, it will be driven by what governments allow and which countries open up their borders at what times.”

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This marginalisation of SANZAAR may be no bad thing for the future of Australian rugby. An opportunity for root and branch reform of the professional game has presented itself quite organically.

Coaches like Dan McKellar of the Brumbies and ex-Wallaby head honcho Michael Cheika have come out in support of the idea of a trans-Tasman competition, extending to include both a Pacific Island and a Japanese presence.

Cheika revealed that he had campaigned actively for the “trans-Tasman plus (Japan)” model in the previous round of Super Rugby broadcasting negotiations, excluding South Africa and Argentina, and with a strong free-to-air TV component.

The positioning of rugby behind a paywall has made it less visible within Australia’s intensely competitive contact sports market and the game’s support base has eroded in terms of participation numbers.

“It’s not easy to give up that nice lollipop, that big money,” Cheika ruefully concluded.

The harmony of aims within an Anzac bubble has on-field merit too. Both nations favour a positive, try-scoring approach to the game, with mobile ball-handling forwards and outstanding all-round skill-sets in the outside backs.

The difference in philosophy – with Australia preferring to probe for weaknesses through phases and New Zealand making a living off turnover counters – has created a recipe for some classic games, none more so than this encounter in Sydney at the turn of the millennium:

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Since the professional era began in 1995, the biggest single area of Australasian excellence has been in the back three composed of the fullback and the two wingers. Nobody else has been able to match the quality of the Anzac production line in this aspect of the team, or even come close to it.

When northern hemisphere clubs aim to improve in this department, they tend to look first towards players from Australia, New Zealand or the Pacific Islands. There is no better example in current English premiership than the Bristol Bears.

Charles Piutau and Luke Morahan

Charles Piutau and Luke Morahan. (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

Coached by an ex-Samoan international captain in the form of Aucklander Pat Lam, they have already attracted one ex-Wallaby in Luke Morahan, and an ex-All Black in the form of Charles Piutau.

From the 2020-21 season onwards, they will joined by Siva Naulago, a Fijian leaguer with Hull FC, and by Semi Radradra, also from Fiji by way of the NRL in Australia. Radradra is quite possibly the best outside back in the world on current form:

The combination of Morahan and Piutau in the Bears backfield was key to the club’s rise to third in the table before COVID-19 pressed the pause button on rugby. Their form has been such that both would have to be considered significant losses to the 2019 World Cup campaigns of the Wallabies and the All Blacks.

The Bears’ systems ensure that they get both men on the ball, and on it together as often as possible. These are instructive lessons about the modern game, and how wingers who stick close to the sideline are a relic of the distant past.

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On opposition kick-offs, Bristol will move their number 14 (Morahan) into the middle of the field as their best aerial receiver:

luke morahan positioning

Morahan makes the catch in the fullback role over the deep-middle. Bristol like to run the ball out of their own 22 in these scenarios, using the full width of the field, so Piutau moves out to fill Morahan’s role on the right wing on the following play:

luke morahan wide play

The Bears are at their most dangerous on kick returns on occasions when they can unite Morahan and Piutau in the backfield:

luke morahan positioning

Morahan catches securely, then looks to fix the first chaser and offer Piutau a run at some forwards in midfield:

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Lam’s offensive coaching uses the full width of the field, which demands a very high work rate from all members of the back three. All have to become significant influencers by getting a lot of touches, and on both sides of the field.

When in the following sequence, the ball reaches Piutau out on the left, he already has his nominal right winger (Morahan) positioned on his inside:

Bristol left winger Henry Purdy misses on the follow-up to Piutau’s deft left foot grubber, but Morahan is there to pick up the pieces and dot the ball down for the score.

It is common practice for Morahan to appear on the ‘wrong’ side – here he is again, wearing number 14 but featuring out on the left edge:

Piutau is in close support, driving Morahan forward in contact right through Waisake Naholo’s tackle all the way up to the London Irish goal-line.

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The pair can just as easily appear together on the right as they can on the left:

A neat switch of play brings Piutau back to the blindside to engineer a short break for Morahan via the offload.

Perhaps the best example of the symbiotic relationship between Piutau and Morahan, and of the transformed role of the winger in the modern game, occurred in the second half of the match against London Irish:

As the Bears halfback goes to pass the ball from the base, Morahan is positioned directly behind him:

luke morahan backfield positioning

But instead of retiring in ‘amateur’ style back to the left wing, he tracks across field and is rewarded by a critical second touch just beyond halfway, as the attack develops towards the right sideline:

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luke morahan counter attack

At this stage Morahan has already run 40 metres to attract the penultimate defender on the opposite side and create space on the right wing:

Once again, the Bears’ number 14, 15 and 11 all end up on the same side of the field, working together to create the score.

When Piutau touches the ball down to round off a spectacular move, Morahan is still running in support to pick up any shrapnel:

luke morahan attacking positioning

By this stage he has run approximately 80-90 metres, from one side of the field to the other, making the crucial extra man in the line and still providing support at the end of the play. There could be no more eloquent testimony to the evolution of the modern game.

Summary
Would either of Charles Piutau or Luke Morahan have made the 2019 World Cup squads of the All Blacks and Wallabies, had eligibility rules permitted? Probably, on both counts.

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A potential backfield of Ben Smith, Beauden Barrett and Piutau might have been too mouth-watering a prospect for Steve Hansen to pass up – just imagine Piutau’s line-breaking and offloading skills, and his left-footed kicking game from the back.

Likewise, Morahan may well have had enough to edge Reece Hodge out of one starting wing and join the optimal backfield of Marika Koroibete and Dane Haylett-Petty. With Morahan to do the high ball catching, you could even afford Kurtley Beale at fullback.

While New Zealand has always enjoyed a titanic historical rivalry with South Africa, in the post-coronavirus world that might prove impossible to sustain. The Kiwis need to come home to the simpler solution of an Anzac bubble, which can expand to include the Pacific islands and Japan.

That solution might spell the end for SANZAAR, but it would also begin to reverse the decline in participation numbers further down the playing pyramid in Australia. It might mean breaking the addiction to the sugary but monopolistic lollipop offered by pay-television companies and finding the way back to balance with free-to-air, but that would be for the long-term good of the game.

Sometimes you have to go back to the spot where you made your mistake, in order to move forward again – and realise that no man is an island, even if he (or she) happens to live on one.