Honestly, it’s like we’ve been reading about a different sport over this last week, with the dramatic change in tack around the reporting of rugby in Australia.
Isn’t it funny how quickly perceptions can change?
This is not to say that this sudden outbreak of good news can change the mistakes of the recent and distant past, or that much work is not still required to get rugby in Australia on a significantly healthier footing.
But it was certainly noticeable that over the course of a couple of days, the mood around rugby changed considerably.
Long may that continue.
The week started with the great news that New Zealand was lifting all restrictions apart from the international border, in recognition of reaching the state of a no active cases of COVID-19. The biggest of all the big ticket-items in Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s announcement was that “sporting events, music events can all take place with no restriction of numbers”.
Coming the week Super Rugby Aotearoa was due to kick off, the ticket-purchasing couldn’t begin quick enough, with the result massive crowds in both Dunedin and Auckland across the weekend.
And it was wonderful to see, but we’ll come back this soon.
Wednesday saw the announcement all rugby fans in Australia – and about 150 players and coaches – had been waiting for: that Rugby Australia and Fox Sports had reached an agreement that meant the widely assumed and desperately hoped for Super Rugby AU competition would kick off on July 3.
With one simple press of the ‘send’ button on the media release, the new Rugby Australia executive had its first major win. With the deal done to allow the local competition to begin, and with plenty of good will already in the air from the return of the Western Force to the domestic scene, this deal was a clear signal that Hamish McLennan and Rob Clarke were well on the way, and mending a few damaged fences while they were at it.
Their next goal will undoubtedly be to get a Bledisloe Cup series over the line for this year, if not a workable version of the Rugby Championship as well.
The reporting around the new competition was overwhelmingly positive and came from a surprisingly wide suite of outlets across radio, television, print, and online media outlets. Finally, and for what felt like the first time in a long time, rugby fans in Australia could see and hear headlines that weren’t having a crack at the game.
Law variations were being discussed all over the place, among coaches and players alike. Coaches talked among themselves and wanted to do away with the mark inside the 22, instead making all kicks contestable. But Wallabies and Rebels flyhalf Matt Toomua – who has quickly emerged as key figure on a number of topics in recent weeks – had some ideas of his own.
Citing the need for ‘more drama in the attacking quarter’, Toomua’s idea was to remove the mark for kicks inside the attacking 22, as well as a line drop-out for defending teams grounding the ball in-goal, rather than the current 22 restart. He explained during The Australian’s Facebook live video session last Wednesday night that such a tweak could actually sharpen the way Australian players kicked tactically, even at Test level.
It’s hard to argue with his reasoning, but moreover, it’s just great to see current players thinking about how to make the game a better spectacle overall.
Sure enough, when on Thursday Rugby Australia confirmed seven law variations for Super Rugby AU, the ‘Toomua Law’, as Wayne Smith dubbed it, was one of them.
The same day, confirmation of rumours emanating out of the West for the last few weeks, that the Force had quietly and cleverly added former Wallabies and Queensland prop Greg Holmes from Exeter in the English Premiership, along with former Force, Brumbies, and Wallabies midfielder Kyle Godwin, coming home after a stint with Connacht in Ireland.
Former Force and Waratahs lock Ollie Atkins will also join them now, also from Exeter, and though former Reds, Waratahs, Force and Worcester flyhalf Jono Lance initially did his best to play down best wishes from Western Force fans on Twitter about his impending return to Perth, the liking of my tweet by him and number of current Force players didn’t exactly scream denial!
— Brett McKay (@BMcSport) June 12, 2020
The four signings removed any doubt about how serious the Force are taking their return, not to mention any concerns about how competitive they might be. And news of the signings unified Australian fans in another favourite pastime: doomsday predictions for the Waratahs!
Which brings us back to the weekend and New Zealand. Dunedin, to be specific.
What a sight it was, a heaving crowd in under the roof screaming for both sides who either didn’t study the memo hard enough, or underestimated how seriously the breakdown was going to be policed under the new focus in place for both competitions either side of the Tasman.
Bryn Gatland’s late drop goal for a Highlanders win would have made for a slightly awkward reunion with dad and Chiefs coach Warren, but not even the overreaction to the increase in penalties could take away from what was a wonderful moment in rugby this year.
And when the Blues – the Blues, of all teams! – so clinically put the Hurricanes away at a sold out Eden Park, there was no more hiding the contentment. It had been a thoroughly entertaining weekend, with two see-sawing games that only the very astute could have predicted correctly.
The fact those games got the wide coverage they did within Australia tells you there is as much interest in actual rugby as there in rugby politics.
So the challenge for RA over the next few weeks is to leverage this spike in interest into eyeballs particularly, if it’s likely that actual bums on seats might be limited for the Round 1 games over the first weekend in July.
Interest in rugby needs to be maintained so that by the time Queensland and New South Wales out onto Suncorp Stadium on July 3, this competition can be a success from the start.
One starting point would be the excellent Super Rugby AU video released social media last week; easily one of the best competition videos I can recall. It needs to be everywhere.
⌚ The countdown is on. #SuperRugbyAU
— RUGBYcomau (@rugbycomau) June 10, 2020
It has certainly been a great week for rugby fans in our neck of the woods. But the hard work really starts now.