The outcome of the Aratipu report out of New Zealand, the increasing likelihood that 2021 will remain COVID-affected and the excellent rugby being played in the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition has given the impetus to New Zealand Rugby to start the development talks on the future of their own Super Rugby competition.
Unfortunately, the way it has been handled with reports of a preferred eight-to-ten team competition, including a Pasifika team, and the apparent lack of engagement with Rugby Australia has suddenly brought about a backlash from rugby pundits on both sides of the ditch.
The quick escalation of words has a distinct undertone of bitterness. Australia is bitter about being left out of the initial talks, the preference of only two to four Aussie teams being eligible, and the constant diminishment of Australian talent when compared to New Zealand.
New Zealand is bitter about Australia not understanding their own circumstances and that Australia’s perceived weaknesses could result in New Zealand’s teams somehow losing their competitive edge and talent being diluted in the murky, less talented Australian waters.
So now it’s time to be straight with everyone.
Yes, New Zealand teams are better than Australian teams. There is no refuting this. The years of mounting wins in Super Rugby and international rugby clearly show that New Zealand is the dominant rugby power in the world.
But so what? New Zealand rugby teams are better than just about every other team in the world. Whether it is provincial teams from Australia, Japan, South Africa or England, New Zealand teams will outclass teams based in these countries nine times out of ten (9.9 times out of ten if it is the Crusaders).
This isn’t about who is better, this is about creating a sustainable and entertaining competition and the simple fact is that New Zealand isn’t big enough to host an internal competition on their own every year and the players have stated that from a workload and health perspective it is unsustainable.
Australia need to know as well that we are in a different (and not the strongest) position, with a hugely competitive national sporting market, terrible administrative and financial issues, poor results and COVID still circulating to boot. This, however, doesn’t mean that Australia is done as a rugby country.
To be somewhat understated, rugby in Australia is going through a rebuilding period but the talk of Australia not having the depth is not correct. Australia has a huge amount of sporting depth. The amount of Australians overseas still plying their trade in rugby is massive (yes, NZ have a bunch, that’s not the point).
There are also so many quality athletes being coaxed to either rugby league or AFL. The reason they are doing this is that the rugby market here just doesn’t have the money to keep them.
That is why a sustainable and profitable tournament is so crucial. This is the first step to having a competition that works for all the unions involved. The destruction of SANZAAR is unfortunate and no one really wants to break away from South Africa.
South African are a juggernaut of a rugby nation and the rivalries with NZ franchises in particular in Super Rugby is great but the geography is simply too much to be sustainable. The SANZAAR power balance was uneven, causing a competition that slowly became convoluted and irrelevant.
The new version of Super Rugby presents an opportunity for that balance to be brought back to centre for the ultimate good of the competition. But instead of a collaborative approach being taken to involve the various parties at the start, it seems everyone has taken sides already. Don’t we know that a house divided against itself cannot stand?
If we really want a sustainable and growing competition then we need to have constructive talks at the top level before statements of the exact make-up are made.
Both countries administrations should also know that in the current climate, 2021 will be a stop-gap year on the path to 2022 seeing the full implementation of a new competition. This should give a good lens to discussion so that 2021 effectively becomes a proof-of-concept competition.
Australia should not back down from having five franchises, it would be the ultimate slap in the face and then kick in the nuts to drop the Western Force once again, especially as they seem to be one of the best structure teams in the Australian competition.
Australia is in the hardest period for rugby that it has ever gone through and it doesn’t need New Zealand digging in the boot. Sure, all national governing bodies need to look out for themselves and New Zealand has every right to take a hard-line approach but the Asia Pacific region needs both Australia and New Zealand to be strong leaders and we can really only do that together.
The inclusion of a Pasifika team is an amazing idea and long overdue. The preference here, though, shouldn’t be to have its base in New Zealand or Australia, potentially diluting current franchises, but to have it based actually in a place like Suva, Fiji and both New Zealand and Australia agreeing to help this team grow to give the benefit back directly to the countries and communities it represents.
For too long both Australia and New Zealand have poached players from the poorer Pacific Islands and branded them as their own. Having the proposed team based in NZ or Australia may seem fine but I fear the lurking intentions of both nations to use this again as a pathway to their own national teams.
Finally, after all is said and done, all the franchises from both New Zealand and Australia can be accommodated to form an excellent competition with growth potential into key Asian and Pacific markets.
All it will take is for us to get along and understand each other, is that so hard? After all, we are pretty great mates when it comes down to it.