Three significant boxes were ticked over the last few days, as Australia’s domestic Super Rugby replacement for the 2020 season edges closer to its yet-to-be-announced but widely accepted July 4 start date.
Late last week saw the Western Force accept the formal invitation to join the competition, which was great news on so many levels.
For one thing, the competition needed more than just the four Australian Super Rugby sides, and the Western Force coming back into the fold instantly gives the competition the feel-good factor that is easy to attach to.
Just like everyone watching the NRL is getting behind the New Zealand Warriors in recognition for the sacrifices they’ve made and commitment they’ve shown to base themselves in Australia for several months, it will be easy for rugby lovers and casual fans alike to get behind the Western Australians in a competition they will come into as clear underdogs.
And that’s an easy narrative that can bubble along nicely, just waiting to be ramped up when they record their first win. And there will be a first win, but more on that shortly.
Secondly, the competition name – Super Rugby AU – is another important, but easily overlooked step. The branding is unsurprising, given Rugby Australia’s existing ‘Rugby AU’ tag, but will serve a purpose for this year at least, as the broader SANZAAR product remains on ice for the foreseeable future.
As I mentioned last week when it was announced, the confirmation of the competition name now means there’s something sponsors and stakeholders and broadcasters can metaphorically touch and feel and form an opinion on.
10 weeks, full home-and-away, plus finals; it’s a better than solid starting point.
Even if crowds remain unlikely, if WA’s border opens again soon and the Force can start playing games in Perth, the competition takes on a proper national feel.
The most recent development was also fairly well expected. Rugby Australia and the Japanese Super Rugby Association yesterday confirming that the rapidly shrinking timeframes around quarantine and preparation time had indeed worked against the Sunwolves’ involvement.
Interestingly, the Rugby Australia statement included the note that had the Sunwolves been allowed to enter the country, they “would be required to complete a 14-day quarantine period within a hotel before they could begin training,” meaning RA obviously weren’t able to secure the same exemption the NRL was able to attain for the Warriors, which allowed them to train while in quarantine lockdown in Tamworth, in northern New South Wales.
And it’s a massive shame we won’t be able to see the Mighty Moondogs running around again this year. On top of some well-placed mail over the weekend that the Jaguares might be no more as well, it’s been a rough couple of days for the newest teams on the southern hemisphere professional rugby block.
Either way, I sincerely hope this Sunwolves news is short-term pain that hopefully leads to an increased Japanese presence in whatever form Super Rugby takes in coming seasons. There are clearly so many advantages for all parties involved.
So the only thing left to tick off is the piddly little detail of convincing Fox Sports to pay as much of their previously agreed amount to broadcast rugby in Australia this year.
Rugby Australia and Fox Sports will enter discussions with numbers at the very opposite ends of a scale, and on what side of the middle the two parties can meet will be crucial.
And it is crucial. Though there have already been mentions in reports that the Brumbies will host the Melbourne Rebels in Canberra to kick off the new competition, and with Queensland and New South Wales meeting in the other match of the opening round, none of that happens without Fox Sports coming to the party.
That said, there seems a consensus that we will know more by the end of this week. And to say there might be no more important week of discussions in the history of professional Australian rugby doesn’t really sound like understatement until you start of thinking about the implications thereafter.
Assuming all the balls fall into place, how the Western Force go against the other Australian sides will be intriguing on so many levels.
They won’t have put their squad together for 2020 thinking of playing at this level, but there’s no question they’ll back themselves to take some scalps.
Their dominant National Rugby Championship win last season showed that they are more than capable of competing in ‘short sprint’ formats, timing their run perfectly to thump a pretty handy Canberra Vikings side 41-3.
“We spoke about that, about what we can gauge ourselves against the other teams,” Force coach Tim Sampson said last week.
“We also had a good NRC team and the opposition teams in NRC some days rolled out teams with 15, 16 contracted players in their squad so we’ve discussed that,” he said.
That Canberra side the Force beat in the NRC Final featured twelve contracted Brumbies in the starting side, and another three on the bench. And a couple of them were arguably unlucky not to have been in Japan at the Rugby World Cup.
“We’re under no illusions we have to improve as well individually, and the staff have put a lot of effort in the last six weeks to make sure with our prep, we’re on point and we’re focusing to be the best prepared team in Australia,” Sampson said.
I love this attitude. The Force know they’ll up against it taking on squads with key Wallabies in key positions, but their attitude is simple: take us lightly, and we’ll knock you off.
And I reckon they will take a scalp or two over the ten weeks. Maybe more if they’re able to play game at home in Perth. Any team that runs out on the field thinking they shouldn’t have too much trouble against a side that doesn’t quite match up on paper will be in for a rude shock.
I wouldn’t even mind betting it happens within the first few games.