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The Wrap: Super Rugby goes up a level, as Australia and New Zealand eye each other off

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19th July, 2020
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Part of the fun of being in a band is hanging shit on the drummer.

Jokes roll off the tongue, like “What’s the last thing a drummer says in a band? Hey, why don’t we try one of my songs?”

With the SANZAAR band in hiatus, expectations were that New Zealand and Australia would instead form a duo, ready to hit the road in 2021. But the release of NZ Rugby’s Aratipu report confirms that a union of equal status – say, Simon and Garfunkel, or Hall and Oates – isn’t what New Zealand has in mind.

The report makes it clear whose band it is, with Australia invited to tack on as drummer – but only if they leave the full drum kit at home.

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Or to extend the analogy to comic partnerships, cue the slapstick music and the disparaging head-slapping of New Zealand’s Benny Hill on Australia’s hapless little, bald sidekick, Jackie Wright.

An interesting few weeks looms. Despite New Zealand’s superior language – some would say arrogant – Rugby Australia correctly responded with a dead, straight bat. The vernacular being used behind closed doors will be very different, but for now, energy should be channelled into getting the detail right, not publicly scrapping for any moral high ground or firing back at media taunts from Steve Hansen and Ian Foster.

Assistant coach Ian Foster and head coach Steve Hansen of the All Blacks

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

So, what can we expect to happen?

The first thing to understand is that NZ Rugby is deadly serious about taking responsibility for its own future. It has very little confidence in Australian rugby – not just to provide competitive opposition, but to function without self-imploding into further dissent and power struggles – and it is reasonable for them to turn to what they know and trust, to avoid depending on a dysfunctional partner.

On the other hand, halfbacks Brad Weber and Bryn Hall spoke for most players last week, pointing out how such an intense domestic competition like Super Rugby Aotearoa is unsustainable in the long term.

If New Zealand needs to go it alone, it will. It will cobble together investment from private equity to fund it. But a joint competition appeals as a better outcome.

Rugby Australia, too, is deadly serious about securing its future. Its situation is more complex than New Zealand’s, because as well as needing to sort out a professional franchise competition, it is also in the process of finalising another attempt at a domestic solution – one that walks a tightrope by playing to traditional club supporter bases, while striving for nation-wide buy-in, and which doesn’t concentrate rugby talent in Sydney and Brisbane.

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With respect to trans-Tasman negotiations, there are some non-negotiables. Rugby Australia won’t be forced into killing off any of its professional franchises, all for the sake of a competition that might only last one year.

Also, as unlikely as this may have seemed a year ago, Rugby Australia isn’t going anywhere without the Western Force. COVID-19 levelling Global Rapid Rugby has pushed Andrew Forrest back inside the tent, with a renewed Rugby Australia administration keen to find common ground and an avenue to tap into potential funding.

Twiggy Forrest

(Photo by Daniel Carson/Getty Images)

If Australia needs to go it alone, it will. It too will cobble together funding, although not to a level that will meet player expectations. But, as for New Zealand, a joint competition is a far better outcome.

Calls from some within Australia to pro-actively seize this opportunity to stand alone come mostly from people who, for various reasons, are hell bent on hastening the demise of professional rugby in Australia, or who erroneously believe that local free-to-air TV networks are waiting to turn this into the equivalent of the AFL or NRL, or who don’t care if the Wallabies tumble further down the world rankings.

Be clear. The domestic competition currently under consideration is a non-professional structure that is distinct from elite high-performance, professional franchise rugby. It is not a substitute.

Note how New Zealand has allowed itself some wriggle room, by suggesting an upper limit of ten teams, including potential for a Pacific Islands side, a move that would signal the end of years of neglect of PI rugby in the professional era, and prove popular with fans. It’s an initiative that also carries significant concerns.

One is that it makes a mockery of any argument against Australia with respect to not providing strong enough opposition. Any new PI side – whether it be built around Fiji’s Drua, or the new Hawaii consortium of five ex-All Blacks and their business partners – will be less competitive than Australia’s existing sides, at least in the initial stages.

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Another issue is that the majority supporter base for such a side would reside in South Auckland. For a resurgent Blues side in the process of drawing old fans back to Eden Park, the timing would be terrible. Witnessing the level of fervent support that Tonga received in the Rugby League World Cup from within New Zealand, NZ Rugby will be very reluctant to open up that can of worms.

Tonga

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

If the logistics and finances add up, then it is a worthy and long overdue objective, honouring and advancing Rugby Australia’s initiative to invite the Fijian Drua into the NRC. The trick is for a new PI side to deliver new fans to the competition, drawn from a wide supporter base in the islands, New Zealand and Australia and elsewhere, not to dilute existing supporter bases.

If Australia holds firm – last week I looked at why Hamish McLennan’s hand is far stronger than what many people in New Zealand understand – then the inclusion of a PI franchise would potentially mean an 11-team competition.

That’s actually a better outcome than ten teams, in that it would provide broadcasters and fans the certainty of five matches every weekend, plus a bye, that teams who receive it in the middle of the competition would welcome with open arms.

Perfect timing then that the Reds and the Force should put on a display on Friday night worthy of any competition, full of crisp passing, running rugby and bruising hits.

It was also full of missed line-out throws – two of which at the end cost the Force the chance of an upset win – but that seems de rigueur these days, no matter who is playing.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, no amount of law tinkering, chasing one’s tail trying to make the game something it isn’t, will make a toss of difference to rugby’s future in Australia.

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What is required is for sides to come out with the positive mind-set that the Reds and Force did. It is players who exhibit their skills with confidence and freedom that will ensure sentiment swings back towards the sport.

In the wash-up, the Reds had enough left in the tank to close out a 31-24 win, but on that evidence, it is impossible to imagine the Force not claiming a couple of scalps in the near future.

Chris Feauia-Sautia

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

In Sydney, after falling behind to an early Tom Cusack try, there was a lot to like about the Waratahs’ urgency. And how refreshing was it to see a side going up a man due to a yellow card to Andy Muirhead visibly crank up the tempo to make the most of their advantage?

That endeavour, and Rob Simmons helming an impressively solid set-piece, kept the Waratahs on track for an upset win, until the wheels came off in the last ten minutes. Ahead 23-17, with an inexperienced halves combination, and Karmichael Hunt too often intent on running diagonally towards the sideline, the home side lacked the composure, self belief and on-field direction to stick to what had served them so well.

Panic kicking set in, and there was a sense of inevitability about how Issak Fines slipped past a tired Lachie Swinton for the match winner, 28-27.

The Brumbies will have concerns around their diminished forward firepower, but they remain more seasoned and cohesive in attack, and more clinical at finishing off opportunities in the attacking 22 than all of the other sides.

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The cream rose to the top early in Wellington, Ngani Laumape skinning Beauden Barrett on his way to a sensational individual try, before Barrett evened things up a few minutes later.

Laumape was as busy as Dennis Rodman’s father Philander, who passed away last week aged 79, having sired 29 children to 16 different women in his lifetime.

Gee, where do you start? School pick-ups and drop-offs must have been bedlam. Will the autopsy confirm that Philander the philanderer was allergic to latex?

I digress. Missing the presence of Hoskins Sotutu, the Blues looked flat, and struggled throughout to provide a solid scrum platform. Coupled with Finlay Christie’s uncertainty at halfback, the dangerous Blues back line were largely unsighted, as the Hurricanes made most of the play.

In the end, courtesy of a late Asafo Aumua try and superb conversion from Jordie Barrett, 29-27 wasn’t a true reflection of the Hurricanes’ dominance. But in this competition of narrow margins, any win is a good win.

Jordie Barrett of the Hurricanes talks to his teammates

(Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

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Speaking of good wins, falling behind 24-0 to a renewed Chiefs might have had despondent Highlanders fans switching off in dismay, but their comeback – crowned by an after-the-siren try to Sio Tomkinson to claim a 33-31 victory – was one for the ages.

How did the Chiefs lose the unlosable? Firstly, they had opportunities to close out the final two minutes and didn’t quite nail the execution. Secondly, a 65th minute try to Damian McKenzie was ruled out by TMO Brendan Pickerill, after he wound the tape back to confirm an accidental offside that occurred in the pre-match warm-up.

Thirdly, two words only… Aaron Smith. Already the star individual performer of this year’s competition, Smith’s energy, stamina, pace and skill knows no bounds. He scored a thrilling try, set others up, had a stoush with Weber, and was still hard at it in the 82nd minute when he stepped into midfield, flatfooted the Chiefs defenders, and hit Tomkinson with the money ball.

Wonderful stuff with Shannon Frizell not far behind, well on track in his quest to be given another crack at the All Blacks’ number six jersey.

With six losses now on the trot, if Chiefs coach Warren Gatland has a drum kit at home, it may well have taken a fearful hammering last night.