Earlier this week I wrote an article about the possibilities for Australian rugby in a solo post-COVID-19 world.
Having these ideas floating around in my head for a while, it was a therapeutic process to go through putting it all down on paper (screen) following a press conference over the ditch last Friday that represented a slap in the face to Australia’s rugby interests at best.
As I alluded to in the original article, I still believe what I put forward is a fall-back position when all else fails in attempting to bring something together with our Anzac allies. Although it feels like we’re creeping towards that point in the breakup where all the cards have been put on the table and there’s little common ground to be found, the dust has settled since we heard from Mark Robinson, and it’s time to pull those few cards that we’ve had tucked up the sleeve to see if something can be salvaged.
It’s well documented that Rugby Australia’s collision course with New Zealand Rugby has been based around our desire to carry a professional footprint represented by our four Super Rugby clubs and a Twiggy-backed Force – a strategy I wholeheartedly support – while NZR wants to limit Australia’s involvement to funnel our talent pool into fewer teams to ensure their competitiveness.
So just before the point of impact and no return, here are a few ideas to be thrown into the mix that attempt to appease the interests of both parties.
Bring down the wall
Everyone who knows rugby knows about the great wall of Tasman – a wall running the length of a long white cloud, about 200 kilometres off New Zealand’s coast that traps any rugby talent heading to the West Island. Sometimes some players make it over the wall somehow. Mike Harris was one and his image now hangs in New Zealand’s national gallery of public shame along with portraits of Phar Lap, Pavlova, Russell Crowe and other entities to have turned that back on Aotearoa.
This strategy is the most obvious and represents my personal favourite – dismantle that wall and allow free player movement between our two countries.
The first layer of extra detail required here is the signing of a memorandum of understanding between RA and the NZR that states that any Kiwi player who signs for an Australian team after the age of 18 will be off the Wallabies selection table. This is an important protection to appease New Zealand’s (justified) concerns that free player movements between our countries will result in the Wallabies effectively transforming into a team of Mike Harrises.
Unfortunately that’s only the first hurdle to clear in bringing this strategy together, with New Zealand allocating significant value to alignment and control of their system. This suggests that Kiwi players playing in their competition but outside of their system might not be a favourable option for them.
The quick counter to this is selling the benefits of increasing their pool of talent that’s playing professionally and within the same competition as NZ to pick the All Blacks from. If players were allowed to move between countries without restriction, as is the case in almost every sporting competition in the world, we could expect anywhere between a team or two of New Zealand talent to flood Australia’s shores.
I certainly don’t think it’s a compromised scenario for the NZR to have their five New Zealand-based teams to pick from along with up to another two teams of players – whose ‘domestic’ wages they don’t have to pay – playing in the same competition.
Anyway, it’s their call, and although there doesn’t seem to be the appetite, it’s the first card worth playing while pushing the benefits they can expect to receive under such an arrangement.
Relations between the white knight from the west and Rugby Australia have thawed recently, and it comes at a time when his open chequebook could certainly come in handy.
Andrew Forrest’s commitment to the Force and the growth of rugby in Western Australia has been unwavering and RA has to latch on to that stability, passion and trust. One possibility to get the NZR’s buy-in for our five teams is to sit down with Twiggy as the benefactor of the Force and negotiate some terms for the establishment and ongoing upkeep of his team list.
Firstly, at the core of the Force’s recruitment policy is their need to be the ‘pathway’ for homegrown talent. They get first dibs on every WA product, which they can forfeit on a case-by-case basis. Then beyond that I’d be breaking the shackles and give Twiggy and his fat bank account free rein to attract whoever he can to Perth with one small exception: all east coast talent (90 per cent of Australia’s rugby talent) is reserved for the four RA-backed teams.
There would be one small exception to this: he can go after any Australian player originating from either coast who has been overseas for two or more years. We obviously want to keep and/or bring back our talent to our shores, and this could be one way to help achieve that. The Force have already brought back a few former Wallabies for Super Rugby AU; it’d be great to see a couple more both for the benefit of a competitive league and the depth available for Wallabies selection.
So the result of all of this is almost all of Australia’s talent being funnelled into our four east coast teams while the Force are a competitive mix of homegrown talent, ex-Wallabies and other internationals who will certainly be able to hold their own in such a competition.
Other friends in need
Now we’re starting to get into the more obscure ideas. This one involves each of our five teams forming a partnership with a national union that might also need a little help at the moment. These partnerships involve each of our teams holding seven spots for their national partner who will send us their seven best players who haven’t been picked off by northern hemisphere clubs.
The first thing worth mentioning here is that a professional rugby player isn’t exactly a stable career at the moment, especially for those who come from countries that don’t have an established national league. So I’d suspect there should be a decent depth of talent in many of the places our teams should be looking build partnerships with.
And who should we be targeting on that front? Well, I think with the Jaguares demise and in the absence of a professional competition, Argentina would be the first to approach.
Then the three island nations are also in the no-brainer category. Forget the romantics of a Pacifika team. If NZR and RA want to really make a difference in the Pacific Islands, they should create a pathway to embed their players in our systems without these unions poaching them for their national teams.
The last choice is a tricky one but I’ve gone with South Africa due to the fact it looks like their four Super Rugby teams will replace as opposed to join the two that went to the Pro14 last year. Another Jacques Potgieter (or seven of them) making a splash on the Australian rugby scene would be great. Although South Africa has a professional footprint and represents one of the game’s powerhouses, I’m sure Super Rugby AU would appreciate the opportunity to have seven of their players playing together in a high-standard league who go into the pool with the players from their four Pro16 teams for Boks selection. I think the Force would be a logical fit for this partnership.
So the result of this strategy is a squad worth of south hemisphere talent that will help plug some holes in our five teams and bring up the overall standard of what they can offer.
The Hail Mary
Finally we have the long shot. At the root of our impasse is a desire for a competitive, unpredictable and exciting concept – worthy aspirations despite the questionable methods NZR have employed to attain them. Well, instead of Australia cutting teams to achieve this, why doesn’t New Zealand add them? Of course that’s a rhetorical question, and just to be crystal clear, given New Zealand’s population and the need to stay within a ballpark or two of the salaries on offer in Europe, five teams is their best fit too.
But it’s worth remembering New Zealand increasing their number of teams has been bandied about as a possibility ever since the pandemic hit, and there’s every reason to think that’s what they’ll need to if Australia decides to go it alone.
Taranaki, Bay of Plenty and Hawkes Bay are regions that could potentially justify the step up to a fully professional tier, with some of them previously expressing interest in being considered as an expansion option.
If two of these were added to New Zealand’s five, their talent being stretched across another two squads would certainly start to bring them back to Australia’s chasing pack.
As mentioned, I’m sure it would start to stretch NZR’s finances beyond their most efficient model, but that tribal element that has been desperately missing from Super Rugby in recent times would be back with a vengeance.
So there they are. The last few chips to throw in the pot to make it as juicy as possible for the NZR to accept all of our five. If not, that’s when it really is time to leave our seat and, as suggested earlier in the week, turn Super Rugby AU to gold.
What do you think, Roarers? Is one of these ideas enough to get NZR to play ball, or is there something else that might be an even better chance at getting them over the line?