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Opinion

The pub test: What is actually plausible for 2021?

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Expert
27th July, 2020
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Once upon a time, not that long ago in fact, it was sites like this one and others that were the domain of theoretical new rugby competition formats.

Well-thought or far-fetched, they were all tossed up and discussed and argued over and forgotten about and rinsed and repeated.

But in the ultimate case of life imitating art, it’s now not just rugby fans in this neck of the woods tossing up competition format ideas for discussion.

In what feels like an absolutely crazy notion, rugby fans have in recent weeks been joined at the new format whiteboard of ideas by… rugby administrators!

And like the online forums and social media chat, there are currently a lot of format idea bubbles floating around at the moment. In time, one of them might even be pretty close to the final agreed format.

But what feels right? What ideas pass the pub test?

Of all the thought bubbles and suggestions and ideas and report recommendations, what is actually plausible? And what is extremely doubtful?

Upfront, let me start by saying I still think for next season at least, we’ll end up with a ten-team trans-Tasman competition with five teams on both side of the ditch.

New Zealand Rugby has been playing a strong hand via the trickling of Aratipu report details and recommendations into the media, and they’re absolutely entitled to do that.

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Hoskins Sotutu runs the ball

Hoskins Sotutu of the Blues. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Say what you will about them trying to strong-arm Australian rugby in general, or even their less-than-kosher tactic of approaching Australian teams directly after Rugby Australia had politely declined their offer to cull teams, but NZR are literally only charged with running the game in New Zealand.

But for all of this, a pretty fair and equitable trans-Tasman model remains the most plausible scenario to me, particularly when the broadcasters get involved and start playing around with potential schedules. The prospect of Friday and Saturday night double-headers in fixed timeslots will be mighty attractive to Sky Sport and presumably Fox Sports (yes, I still think Fox will end up with the rights, too).

A fifth game might float around the weekend; Sunday afternoon rugby is always enjoyable, but the prospect of Saturday night triple-headers with a game in Perth will also be enticing.

Once both NZR and RA head down a certain path of their preferred model or models, my gut feeling is that they’ll both eventually work out that a collective is going to be worth more than the sum of its parts.

So yes, that means I do think NZR’s eight-team suggestion is pretty doubtful.

It’s clear Rugby Australia are not entertaining the idea of folding down to two teams, for one thing. I think there is also significant doubt around a whether a brand-new Pasifika team can be created from a blank piece of paper, a proper organisation structure formulated, coaching and medical staff employed, and players contracted all for a February start.

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Even the best intended rugby people with the best connections and unlimited backing would see that as a lot to do in six months.

And that’s all before you tackle the issue of where the team will be located and whether they will be a true representation of the Pacific Islands, or essentially a sixth New Zealand (or indeed, Australian) team.

These doubts would make NZR’s ten-team formats similarly doubtful, if they remain intent on the Pasifika outfit being in place for 2021. That said, if the Pasifika plan can’t become reality in the timeframe, then ten teams either side of the Tasman becomes very doable; hence my feeling that this is the most plausible idea going.

What of Australia’s standalone options? Well, I’m doubtful about them too, because it’s pretty clear that RA’s preferred position is to not have to stand alone. They say they will if they have to though, so they’re worth looking at.

Of the options floated, I think the idea of somehow resurrecting the Sunwolves is highly doubtful. Even if you look past the fact that someone will have to pay for them – and why would the Japanese RFU do that for a competition with a quarter of the footprint of the original Super Rugby tournament that COVID-19 may well have killed off for good? – there’s still the small matter of the Top League still planning to run from next January and run through to May so as to be done before the rescheduled Olympics.

Beyond that, plans remain for the new JRFU professional league to begin in January 2022. It’s just really hard to see how – or why – the Sunwolves would contract players and coaches for maybe one season. If the conversation is about a couple of Japanese teams joining Super Rugby (or whatever it will be called in the future), then sure, that has merit. I’m not sure a single Japanese team in an Australian comp makes much sense at all.

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What about a team of Argentinean players, based in Australia, then? Nope, similarly doubtful. Again, what would Argentina get from it? And why would the UAR pay for players in a competition played in a terrible time zone for Argentina?

More plausible is the idea of a Fijian side playing in an AU competition, be that a side based in Western Sydney, or a side based in Fiji with suitable travel exemptions and allowances in place.

Fijian Drua

Could the Fijian Drua be admitted? (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

But it’s only plausible because of the history of the Fijian Drua in the National Rugby Championship. The ‘who pays?’ question remains front and centre, but at least some organisational structure exists.

South Africans? Doubtful. There’s similarly nothing to gain for them playing in Australia either, and their eggs certainly appear to be heading toward a northern hemisphere basket. SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux was quoted in the Republic last week as saying, “I wouldn’t be doing my job not to look at plan B or plan C”.

“I’ve been doing that for a long time and there are a few options on the table,” he said.

Already, reporting suggests the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers are set to replace the Cheetahs and Kings in an expanded PRO16 tournament.

Playing the South African teams in a cross-over finals series? Even more doubtful, especially with the northern and southern hemisphere seasons still out of whack, and it would be even more unlikely down the track if the South African teams were granted access to the European tournaments.

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Certainly, there are a lot of ideas floating around. Some of them might land, but many just don’t make sense.

Regardless, it’s been curious to see the competition daydreaming graduating from the fans to the boardroom. Proof perfect that this really had been a year like no other.