New competitions. New broadcast negotiations. New lockdown measures. New talent distribution ideas. So much has been variously reported, discussed and announced this week you’d be forgiven for forgetting there’s actually some rugby being played tonight.
Too much to talk about all in the one place though? I don’t think so.
Roll up for (yet) another round of broadcast negotiations
It took less than 24 hours for a frontrunner for Rugby Australia’s new(ish) broadcast offering to emerge, with the Daily Telegraph reporting a combined Optus-Ten bid was likely for Super Rugby and Wallabies Tests.
There’s more than a little bit of deja vu about the scenario. Cast your minds back six months and it seemed Raelene Castle was on the verge of sealing a deal with the telco and free-to-air network.
We need not spend much time outlining the merits of a change of broadcaster, given such benefits – live Super Rugby emerging from behind the paywall, the quality of Optus’ football coverage boding well for any move into rugby, and the potential for the 15-man game to be promoted well to the organisation’s phone, internet and English Premier League customers – were discussed in the first half of the year, and earlier. Suffice to say it would be a positive move for the sport.
If such a deal gets closed this time around, Castle should be given a share of the credit, as the offering put to market on Monday follows the groundwork laid by the former CEO, albeit with the additions of State of Ori- sorry, Union and the Champions League-style “Super Eight”.
Of course, it’d be foolish to suggest we know exactly how any broadcast negotiations are going to play out this early. That Optus and Ten have been so consistently mentioned in these discussions is a sure indication of their interest, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if top-level rugby was to remain on Fox Sports in 2021 and beyond.
While they may very well end up bidding for just club rugby, it’s not exactly against their interest for it to be reported that there’s only one party – albeit a combined one – to be interested in the top-tier rights. A late bid wouldn’t be a new tactic. Let’s watch this space.
2020 throws down more COVID curveballs
In the grand scheme of everything that’s happening in the world, cancelling a dead-rubber rugby match isn’t significant. Still, missing out on a second Blues versus Crusaders fixture to finish up Super Rugby Aotearoa, as at the time of writing seems inevitable, is a real shame.
The Round 5 meeting between the two was a thrilling encounter, and the prospect of the Blues getting a crack at the champions at home was tantalising, even if the title was no longer up for grabs.
Alas, with new cases of COVID-19 appearing in Auckland, it seems inevitable that Sunday’s match will be cancelled. At least rugby fans can be grateful that last week’s Crusaders-Highlanders clash was an engrossing affair which was a more than adequate makeshift decider.
And if this weekend’s finale is cancelled, it’s for the best that Scott Robertson’s men claimed top spot a week early and so stopped the prospect of an actual decider being scuppered, leaving what was an outstanding ten-week tournament without a winner.
As an aside, how does a side so used to holding trophies manage to drop and damage this one?
NRC will be sorely missed by Australian rugby
Speaking of things we won’t see anytime soon, let’s talk about the NRC.
Alongside Super W, the National Rugby Championship was one of two notable omissions from Rugby AU’s offerings for 2021 and beyond. With the 2020 edition already cancelled, we’ve almost certainly seen the last of it.
In such tumultuous economic times, you can’t blame the governing body for prioritising competitions likely to garner more of a broadcast audience, but the impact it’s had on rugby development in the country cannot be so hastily discarded.
Whether it’s been coaches (Brad Thorn, Tim Sampson, Jason Gilmore and a few more) or players (Folau Fainga’a, Isi Naisarani, Will Harrison and many more), the NRC has helped unearth plenty of emerging talent in Australia.
While a national club competition taking the season’s best performers from Sydney, Brisbane and the rest of the country might placate some of the grumpy voices in what could be termed the sport’s more ‘traditional’ clubland, it won’t provide the same developmental benefits as the tournament it replaces.
The way the NRC was scheduled – after Super Rugby and during the international season – allowed the next-best tier of players, like those with potential who might not be given much of a run by their Super sides, plenty of gametime against good, if not provincial-level, opposition.
Take that away and replace it with a “short-form” alternative and there won’t be the same opportunity for consistent footy over a proper season. Nor would emerging players stuck on the bench in Super Rugby be guaranteed a guernsey by their clubs.
On the flipside, given they won’t necessarily have played much of a role in the club season due to provincial duties – and hence done little for the club to qualify for the showcase – teams drafting such players into their XVs for the national tournament would make such a competition somewhat disingenuous.
There aren’t many casual fans who will bemoan the NRC’s demise, but that doesn’t mean it’s a positive development for Australian rugby.
Spread the local talent around
“It would help solve team depth issues, the concerns [New Zealand] have, and I think a draft would be extremely promotable and exciting for the fans. It would also create more content for the game.”
So Rugby AU chairman Hamish McLennan told the Sydney Morning Herald’s Georgina Robinson.
I’m a sceptic of McLennan’s State of Union concept, but this idea is entirely more palatable for the reasons he mentions.
Player drafts are the norm in the US, and of course closer to home in the AFL. They’re an excellent way to keep the sport in the headlines in the off-season, with mock drafts and speculation about who’ll take whom with what pick all too easy to enjoy.
They’d also provide a vehicle to balance out positional depth across the country, something we talked about last week. Australia’s player distribution isn’t half as good as it good be, and allowing clubs to pick and choose from the country’s crop of youngsters would go some way to addressing that problem.
NSW and Queensland will protest on the basis of producing the most players in the national talent pool, but given that hasn’t helped them produce the most wins in recent Super Rugby seasons, there’s a fair argument that if they’re not – or at least weren’t – doing enough with said talent, maybe it should go to someone who will.
McLennan’s other proposal in the Herald piece – of allowing surplus New Zealand players and other internationals to join Australian sides – isn’t as enticing.
Sure, it might help out a team or two in the wins column, but the obvious danger is that it comes at the expense of developing local players. There are only five no.9 jerseys available any one week, for example, and the Wallabies are far better served by them being worn by those who can later wear a green and gold guernsey with the same number on the back.
Now, about that rugby
Force versus Waratahs. Reds versus Rebels.
The former screams danger game for the Tahs, who’ll have to avoid a drop-off after the euphoria of trouncing the Reds. The Force will be fresh off the bye and have almost caught out every side already this season, with the exception of the ladder-leading Brumbies, even if they haven’t yet managed to find a victory.
The latter is almost – not quite, but almost – in must-win territory for the Reds, who are coming off consecutive losses. Brad Thorn has reverted to his best-performed back row of Liam Wright, Fraser McReight and Harry Wilson, a combination which will pose proper challenges for the Rebels around the ground, if not at the lineout.
There are some superb match-ups all over the park in this one. Matt Philip against Lukhan Salakaia-Loto in the second row. Jordan Uelese and Brandon Paenga-Amosa at hooker. They might not be playing the same position, but James O’Connor at flyhalf facing off against Matt To’omua in the centres.
At the back of the scrum, Wallabies incumbent Isi Naisarani matches up against a young man with claims to take the no.8 jersey away from him in Wilson. And out on one wing we have John Eales Medallist Marika Koroibete opposite Jordan Petaia.
As a neutral, I’m hoping for all to be even, engrossing contests – with one exception. After his father tragically passed away just week, here’s hoping every single thing possible goes Petaia’s way on Saturday, and he reminds us all of his phenomenal talent. Go well, young man.